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How Covid-19 is changing research culture

Pandemic response is national, open and led by China, say Daniel Hook and Simon Porter

In the past three months, Covid-19 has fundamentally altered global politics. Governments have been forced to balance limiting the spread of coronavirus, at a cost of widespread financial and mental hardship, or prioritising the economy at the risk of a high Covid-19 death toll. Wide-ranging policy changes have been implemented that don’t always sit easily with manifesto pledges or the natural style of governing politicians.

For UK research, the most remarkable change brought about by Covid-19 has been in the government’s approach to public communications, with televised daily briefings from ministers and research leaders.

Whether the renewed value placed on expertise is a short-term aberration or a retreat from the post-truth era remains to be seen—the populist backlash against public-health experts is well underway in several countries. At present, though, evidence-based decision making in government is back in vogue.

Expertise is established over time. It is built on evidence, transparency and replicability. It can take years to establish a research programme into a disease—recruiting researchers, gathering evidence and conducting clinical studies. But Covid-19 has seen changes to culture and process that would normally take years happen in weeks.

Data crunch

Looking at research outputs in terms of volume, international distribution, collaboration patterns and mode of communication reveals the pace of this adaptation. The well-established but relatively small field of coronavirus research has been transformed, gaining scale and diversity and adopting practices to make results rapidly and openly available.

Digital Science’s Dimensions database provides a comprehensive overview of research, covering more than 109 million publications, 5 million awarded grants, 40 million patents, 1.5 million datasets, half a million clinical trials and approaching half a million policy documents. It is updated daily.

Since the beginning of 2020, Dimensions has recorded an explosive growth of data on Covid-19. As of the end of April, this amounted to more than 19,250 publications, 250 datasets, 16 grants, 270 patents and 1,900 clinical trials. These have fed into more than 200 policy documents.

While more than two thirds of the publications are in medical and health sciences, there are also several hundred in information science. These range from using artificial intelligence in vaccine discovery, to using big data to track the spread of the virus and inform prevention and suppression strategies.

Hundreds more papers have appeared on the economics of the crisis. Researchers have published on the psychological effects of being homebound, the role of telehealth in beating the virus, and many other topics.

Looking at a geographical breakdown on the global production of Covid-19 papers shows the speed of response. The continuing volume of output from China is notable, showing both the capacity and adaptability of the Chinese research system. 

Coronavirus geography

Step change

Against a slower US response, China sustained a lead in research volume for the first three months of 2020. The UK and Italy have both been hit hard by Covid-19 and have highly developed research systems, so it is unsurprising to see them among the top four producers of research to date. April saw a step change, with more of the world producing Covid-19 research and the US taking a leading position, as it does for research papers in general.

Despite science becoming more international, the urgency of Covid-19 is making even the best researchers focus on local collaborations as the quickest routes to results. We are therefore seeing most Covid-19 research taking place within one country. (This and the subsequent figure contain papers whose authors cannot assigned to an institution, hence they show higher counts than that for outputs’ geographical origins.)

Coronavirus colab

This is not simply because of China’s large role in this research. It may also reflect the nature of the research needed to understand the virus.

The research response to coronavirus has also changed in publishing. Many publishers have accelerated peer review, and many are releasing Covid-19 research articles openly.

Covid-19 is driving rapid adoption of preprint servers in the biomedical sciences. Preprint servers have been on the rise since the early 1990s, but medicine has not historically made much use of them. The pandemic has induced a culture change.

Coronavirus publishing

Across research and society more generally, it is not yet clear which of the changes caused by the pandemic will outlast the crisis—or which will be for the the better. The most valuable lasting change would be a realisation by both governments and the public of the value of expertise. Openness and transparency would make good bedfellows to expertise in assisting a return to an Age of Reason.

Daniel Hook and Simon Porter are chief executive and director of innovation respectively at Digital Science