The Covid-19 pandemic changed the field of scholarly communication forever – preprints are now regularly picked up by the media and shared online. Alice Fleerackers and Olivia Aguiar explain how to communicate non-peer-reviewed work responsibly.
In the slow, unpredictable world of journal publication, preprints — unreviewed papers that have been posted online – offer a mechanism for rapidly communicating health research with the scholarly community. Historically, media coverage of preprints was discouraged in journalism, due to potential concerns about reporting flawed, biased, or provisional research. In recent years, the urgency to address the pandemic and absence of relevant peer-reviewed studies led to a surge of media coverage of COVID-19 preprints.
In 2020, the Scholarly Communications Lab initiated the SSHRC-funded project Sharing Health Research. It explored how, where, and among whom health information circulates online, in the form of research publications, preprints, news stories, social media posts, and more. We have since led a series of qualitative and quantitative studies to understand how preprints are portrayed, understood, and communicated online in the pandemic era.
Framing preprints as uncertain in the media
Some outlets – such as Medscape and Wired – almost always framed the preprints they mentioned as uncertain, describing them as unreviewed, preliminary, or in need of further verification or explicitly labeling them as “preprints.” Other outlets –including The Conversation and New York Times – emphasized uncertainty less than half of the time.
As findings may change from the preprint to the final peer-reviewed journal, transparency in communicating scientific uncertainty becomes crucial to avoid confusion within and beyond the scholarly community. To us, it still wasn’t clear what was going on behind the scenes. What practices do journalists’ use to communicate about preprints?
A careful calculation
Preprints are early versions of research papers that are made publicly available before formal peer review. Published on preprint servers, they enable the rapid dissemination of new scientific knowledge. However, preprints lack formal peer review, necessitating a cautious approach as their quality may not be thoroughly vetted.
We found that deciding to cover preprints is a careful calculation, where journalists weigh the potential public benefits and accessibility of preprints against the risks of spreading misinformation.
Journalists also described maintaining “extra skepticism” when covering preprint studies, relying on strategies such as reaching out to scientists unaffiliated with the research to ask for a critique of the work. Even with these strategies, many journalists also felt they lacked the expertise or time required to fully vet the research.
Implications for the public
With increased coverage of preprint research in the media, we were curious to learn more on how the public interpreted unpublished or unverified information.
Those who read the hedged articles reported less favourable attitudes towards the vaccine and found the scientists and news reporting less trustworthy overall. In contrast, describing the study as a preprint did not influence participants’ attitudes or beliefs in any significant way, perhaps because they did not understand what the term meant. A qualitative analysis of the survey data revealed that only about 1 in 4 participants was able to define the term ‘preprint’ accurately.
Journalists are often encouraged to include these disclosures of preprint status in their stories to prevent audiences from putting too much trust in findings that could change in the future or fail to pass peer review. But the study suggests that more needs to be done to help audiences fully grasp what the term ‘preprint’ means.
Communicating about preprints online
Ensuring news stories provide the context needed to support audiences in evaluating preprint research is especially important in a digital media environment. In an additional study we found that citizens often shared COVID-19 preprint stories covered by The Conversation – an outlet that seldom mentioned the unreviewed or preliminary nature of these studies – on social media.
That is, the public – with limited knowledge of what preprints are – shared links to stories, unaware they were amplifying preprint research. Circulating preprints may be helpful at times (e.g., providing life-saving information at a time of need). But in some cases, controversial and low-quality preprints make the news, which may harm citizens – especially if the unvetted nature of the research was not transparently communicated.
Communicating preprints beyond the pandemic
It’s up to all of us to develop responsible and ethical norms around how, when, and why to use preprints. Both journalists and scientists agree that preprints are here to stay. But our studies suggest that we need better strategies to support journalists in using them responsibly.
We are expanding on our findings on journalism and preprints as part of a new project–the Value of Openness, Inclusion, Communication, and Engagement for Science in a Post-Pandemic World (VOICES). Our international, interdisciplinary team will explore how journalists use other Open Science outputs, such as data sets and Open Access publications.
We hope to offer insight on how the scholarly and journalism communities can better work together to provide trusted public health information and support public engagement with science and evidence, even when misinformation and scientific uncertainty are high.
- Problems with Preprints: Covering Rough-Draft Manuscripts Responsibly
- Considerations for journalists picking up preprints
- Spotting bad science by the University of California, Davis
Anna Henschel was editorially responsible for this article. Guest contributions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of our editorial team. This article is an adaptation of „How is emerging health research communicated online?“ by Olivia Aguiar, which was first published on the ScholCommLab Blog (CC-BY).