As healthcare providers and researchers increasingly turn to preprints during the COVID-19 outbreak, two early career advocates are doing their part to promote this practice and improve the process.
Monica Granados is on the leadership team of PREreview (Post, Read, and Engage with preprint review), an organization working to bring more diversity to scholarly peer review by supporting and empowering community of researchers, particularly those at early stages of their career (ECRs) to review preprints.
On their platform, people can share their feedback on freely available scientific manuscripts that have not yet undergone editorial peer review.
PREreview uses preprints as a medium to help researchers—particularly, those early in their careers—learn how to do peer review at a stage where the authors are still able to integrate those comments. Since it was established in late 2017, the organization expanded from providing resources to serve as a platform for live, virtual preprint journal clubs. PREreview also trains young scientists on how the process works with a mentorship program.
“We have a suite of different resources to facilitate researchers doing effective peer review using open source and open science,” says Granados, who operates PREreview with co-founders Daniela Saderi and Samantha Hindle. “We started as three women just out of grad school thinking that this was a side project to something, and it has become pretty influential.”
The organization was particularly poised to address some of the problems in the scholarly environment with the onset of the pandemic. Without scientists meeting in their labs in person, PREreview has hosted virtual journal lab clubs on COVID-19, one with the Journal of Medical Internet Research and another with PLOS Pathogens, that brought together people from around with clinical or epidemiology expertise to review timely preprints.
In January, PREreview launched a new rapid review platform that provides a structured review with multiple choice questions assessing the robustness of the manuscript along with a few free response questions.
“The idea is to lower that barrier to allow people with expertise to review as many manuscripts as possible,” says Granados. “It was a great coincidence that this tool was available, specifically designed for outbreak and health-related manuscripts. We didn’t realize just how useful it would be. We have been really busy because we have these resources and platforms that address major problems in the scholarly communication landscape that have arisen because of COVID-19.”
PREreview is a solution for the problem of how to deal with quality control with the volume of preprints being produced, Granados says. “This isn’t just about COVID-19. These practices should continue after we’ve mitigated this pandemic,” says Granados, who attended OpenCon in 2018 and credits the experience with inspiring her passion for this work. “Being part of the open community and doing open science is more than a job for me. It’s a bit of my purpose. I want to leave the world a little more open than when I came.”
For Jessica Polka, attending OpenCon in 2016 and 2017 helped inform her work with ASAPBio, where she is executive director. She is committed to helping science communication be more efficient and posted her first preprint in 2014. “It just struck me as one of the most concrete ways the researchers can affect changes in the culture of publishing,” says Polka.
COVID-19 is driving home the need for open practices, putting increased attention on scientific research and preprints. About 38 percent of literature on COVID-19 being posted every week is in the form of a preprint rather than a journal article, notes Polka. Only about 2 percent of the overall biomedical research was posted as a preprint last year, compared to 7 percent this year.
“There is an urgent need for rapid exchange of information that has increased the use of preprints in the last few months,” says Polka. “It’s exciting and is demonstrating to many people a way of communicating that they may not have used before.” (See new preprint article Polka recently coauthored on the role of preprints in a pandemic.)
With the broad exposure, however, come challenges. Reporting about the use of preprints in the media doesn’t always capture the nuance of the process and preprints have the capability of spread misinformation. Polka says it’s important to consider how servers are conducting their screening policies.
To address that issue, ASAPbio created a directory earlier this year of 44 preprint server policies to help people understand how servers operate. Polka also helped ASAPBio develop a new resource page in early May that tracks preprint trends and policies related to open science. It will be updated with answers to frequently asked questions about preprints and provide links to other resources about what journals are doing in response to the pandemic.
Polka says attending OpenCon gave her the skills she needed to think more deeply about culture change in publishing and connections she’s leveraged. “It provided a model for a community of people working together,” she says. “The environment of OpenCon has been essential in enabling me and my colleagues to proceed in our work.”