Promise and pitfalls of preprints explored in AHCJ webcast

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient.

Photo: NIAID via FlickrTransmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient.

More than 50 health journalists and others participated in the April 30 AHCJ webcast on research preprints, but if you missed it, you can watch the recording here. Despite having written about coverage of preprints before, I learned a ton by listening to John Inglis, Ph.D.; Ivan Oransky, M.D.; and Angela Rasmussen Ph.D.

The opening presentation by Inglis, who co-founded the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers, was particularly illuminating on the history of preprints and the criteria used to vet them — information I haven’t seen anywhere else in the multiple articles I’ve read and linked to about preprint media coverage.

It also was interesting to hear how the use of preprints in biology and medicine took so much longer than their use in other sciences because of the outsized influence of journals whose leadership did not want preprints to cut into their profits. Oransky’s presentation  asked whether preprints really are the problem when it comes to dubious coverage of medical research. Peer-reviewed papers can be just as problematic as any preprint — potentially more if journalists take “peer-review” to be a stamp of approval on a study’s quality, and do not adequately vet the study themselves with a close, critical reading and consultation with experts.

Inglis noted what many journalists already know about preprints — that their acceptance and presence on a preprint server does not depend on quality, reliability, novelty or importance. Here is just a handful of things that many seasoned health journalists may not have known:

  • MedRxiv is barely a year old, having been founded in 2019. It’s hard to imagine this pandemic without preprints at this point, but scientists almost missed out on this resource during a critical time.
  • Some preprint servers are nonprofit and others earn profits. (MedRxiv and bioRxiv are both nonprofit.)
  • All preprint servers/services have submission requirements, and most involve some level of screening of various amounts and quality.
  • To be published on medRxiv, authors are required to name funding sources, declare ethics approval and participant consent, have their clinical trial registered, note whether the raw data are available for others to review, and follow research reporting guidelines.
  • Two concerns addressed during medRxiv screening procedures are whether the content could cause harm (such as an intervention that could be weaponized or used for a harmful, non-therapeutic or non-preventive purpose), and whether the content could prompt harmful patient behavior, such as articles that question the safety of vaccines or the toxicity of common substances. (These articles still would be able to go through a standard peer-review process for publication at a journal, but medRxiv will not publish them as non-peer-reviewed preprints.)

The webcast is just under an hour long and covers so much ground than I’ve included here. AHCJ materials related to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic are freely available to all journalists, not just members of AHCJ, so check out the webcast if you’re covering research about the virus. If you find it helpful, pass it on to your colleagues.

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