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.
Early on Feb. 1, John Inglis picked up his phone and checked Twitter, as he does most mornings. He was shocked at what fresh hell awaited.
Since 2013, Dr. Inglis, executive director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York, has been helping manage a website called bioRxiv, pronounced “bio archive.” The site’s goal: improve communication between scientists by allowing them to share promising findings months before their research has gone through protracted peer review and official publication.
But the mess he was seeing on Twitter suggested a downside of the service provided by the site, known as a preprint server, during the emerging coronavirus pandemic. The social media platform was awash with conspiracy theories positing that the new coronavirus had been engineered by the Chinese government for population control. And the theorists’ latest evidence was a freshly submitted paper on bioRxiv from a team of Indian researchers that suggested an “uncanny similarity” between proteins in H.I.V. and the new virus.
Traditionally, the Indian researchers would have submitted a paper to a peer-reviewed journal, and their manuscript would be scrutinized by other scientists. But that process takes months, if not more than a year. BioRxiv, medRxiv — another site co-founded by Dr. Inglis — and other preprint servers function as temporary homes that freely disseminate new findings. For scientists on the front lines of the coronavirus response, early glimpses at others’ research helps with study of the virus. But there is a growing audience for these papers that are not yet fully baked, and those readers may not understand the studies’ limitations.