Pre-prints, press releases, peer reviewed journal articles and specialist news titles are all suddenly gaining a much greater slice of the public’s attention – there’s a blizzard of information out there about COVID-19 just now. Indeed, the sheer volume and variety of research finding its way into a wider realm presents a challenge to those who seek to report and analyse it in a responsible way.
The Conversation exists to take reliable knowledge to as broad a group of people as possible. We believe the value of expertise is more apparent now than ever. So, you might reasonably ask: how is The Conversation tackling the matter of dealing with the vast quantity of research that hasn’t been peer reviewed, that’s now swirling around?
For starters, we strongly feel we can’t simply ignore it. In the midst of the pandemic, developments are taking place at such a pace – and informing decision making. It is only right we therefore engage with some such research, even before it is peer reviewed.
Take, for example, the recent case of a study that looked at the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa. Ahead of peer review or even pre-print release of the research, the Financial Times reported that the study indicated the vaccine had little impact on mild or moderate cases of disease caused by a new, dominant strain of the virus in South Africa.
Other publications picked up on the report, and the South African government moved fast to suspend roll-out of the vaccine. It is clear to us that The Conversation must be in a position to consider such developments. And indeed, we did so here. But it is also right, in our view, that we are clear about the stage of the research to which our journalism relates. Our article points out quickly and prominently that the relevant study had yet to be peer reviewed or published.
Across our global network we are employing guidelines that we hope will allow readers to understand this approach we take to the reporting and analysis of such research. All coverage of pre-prints in The Conversation should:
Communicate to the reader that the study has not received the same scrutiny as other published research.
Make it clear to the reader that the paper has not been peer reviewed. In some cases, this may require a simple explanation of what peer review process is
Avoid describing the work as a “paper”, which may imply full process has been passed
Avoid the term “published”, which may carry similar implications
Deploy headlines that convey caution, by using words such as “suggest”, “indicated”, “preliminary study”
When contemplating coverage of preliminary findings, Conversation editors are also encouraged to consider:
Whether it might be the right course of action to have the article authored by someone who is not involved in the research
The use of the Q&A format, which allows the editor as journalist the frame questions and challenge assertions
If the findings merit forming the main theme of a Conversation article, or whether they might be better as part of a wider analysis piece
We realise these guidelines are flexible and we believe that is important for editors and, crucially readers, at a time of enormous interest in the outcomes of scientific research. There have been, and will continue to be, times when we feel it is absolutely right and in the public interest for the author(s) of a non-peer reviewed paper to explain their work via The Conversation.
The 120 or so Conversation editors around the world probably have more collective experience of dealing with academic texts and research than journalists on any other publication aimed at a mainstream audience.
This means that the output is far more likely to feature links to all manner of academic work. Where newspaper editors might elect to link to another newspaper article for further reading, a Conversation editor may link to an academic blog or indeed pre-print. In such cases, where the point of a link is not to support a central claim, but to encourage continued engagement with the subject, we do not deem it necessary to elaborate on the nature of the item being linked to.
But, as ever, we rely on you, our readers to keep us informed of what you need from Conversation journalism. So please, if there are aspects of academic research you feel we could do a better job of explaining, or if you feel there is a case for more clarity around process, then do get in touch. We can’t promise we will act upon your suggestions, but we will consider them.