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Tip Sheets

Tips on covering preprints about coronavirus research

By Tara Haelle

Along with regular coverage of peer-reviewed medical research on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, there has been a great deal of attention on preprints, which are complete drafts of research studies shared online before peer review.

Denise-Marie Ordway has created a tip sheet at Journalist’s Resource on covering preprints about the coronavirus. It addresses six important factors to keep in mind when reporting on a study in this early format. Ordway’s tip sheet is worth reading in full, but here is a summary of the key points:

  1. Preprints are relatively new to the biological and life sciences, even though they’re not new to many other scientific fields. Two of the largest preprint servers are bioRxiv, launched in 2013, and medRxiv, which launched halfway through 2019.

  2. Preprints undergo a cursory screening but NOT peer review before posting. The screening “looks for plagiarism, offensive content, non-scientific content and material that could pose a health risk.” But you cannot expect that others in the field have carefully investigated the methodology or statistics.

  3. Preprint findings are not facts. They are preliminary findings, which journalists need to convey early in their stories. Sometimes, preprints are “strictly confidential.”

  4. Avoid covering preprints if you don’t have a strong base knowledge in research methods. If you’re a science or health journalist with a strong background already in covering medical studies, you have a sense of what to look for in assessing whether a preprint is worth covering. If you don’t have that expertise, you’re more likely to cover preprints that shouldn’t be covered at all or to cover them inadequately.

  5. Consult other researchers in the field who were not involved in the paper. This is true for any scientific study but particularly important for preprints since they haven’t undergone peer review. Instead of just asking about the validity of the findings or their application, consider consulting outside experts (even on background or off the record) about whether the preprint should be covered and perhaps how it should be framed.

  6. Keep in mind that some preprints are withdrawn by authors from the server. If you’re going to cover preprints, you might want to have a plan for what you will do if a preprint you covered gets withdrawn. That might mean updating the story, including a note at the top of a story, or possibly taking a story down altogether.

Also be sure to read this New York Times piece by science journalist Wudan Yan: 
Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits: Preprint servers and peer-reviewed journals are seeing surging audiences, with many new readers not well versed in the limitations of the latest research findings.