Beware the preprint in covering coronavirus research


Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If it wasn’t difficult enough to keep up with the flood of scientific papers about COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the disease, there are also all the preprints to keep up with. A preprint is a full draft of a research study shared online before going through peer review. Most often, it’s published on a dedicated preprint site (typically hosted by journals, research institutions or open access/open science networks) where other researchers can leave comments in a sort of community peer review.

While preprints aren’t new, coverage of them in medical/health/scientific journalism has been growing and has become particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are important caveats to keep in mind when reading, interpreting and writing about preprints, especially in the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic situation where misinformation grows like bacteria in a Petri dish.

The Journalist’s Resource has created a tip sheet for covering preprints about the coronavirus that address six key things to keep in mind. Author Denise-Marie Ordway first notes that “making preprints available to the public has many benefits for researchers,” but concerns have arisen from the scientific community “about journalists misinterpreting findings and ignoring or excluding context that is critical to understanding a research study’s preliminary results.” A particular concern is that “journalists who are not trained to spot methodological flaws and misleading claims — issues experts would catch during peer review — will base some news coverage on problematic findings.”

As always, journalists should seek outside comment when covering preprints, as they should any other scientific paper. But there are additional caveats to keep in mind when writing about preprints, especially for the general public. The tip sheet is worth reading in full, but here is a summary of Ordway’s six key points.

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Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle is AHCJ’s health beat leader on infectious disease and formerly led the medical studies health beat. She’s the author of “Vaccination Investigation” and “The Informed Parent.”