The current coronavirus crisis – for it is a crisis whether complacent politicians decide we are in “delay “ mode or in a “ contain” strategy – also asks questions of scholarly communications which have needed answers for at least 20 years . The best of my publishing friends in the industry have always espoused a service ethic – “ we are there to ensure quality control and effect dissemination”- while for many of them that could only be done by a peer reviewed article in a subscription journal . As virologists scramble for a vaccination, and every form of current media is looking at the impact of what is happening to us , those who work in scholarly communications have questions of their own to consider . 

And I am not just thinking about speed , though I did meet a publisher recently who spoke candidly of his article backlog and his two year voyage from acceptance to publication . If market forces really did work in science publishing , he said , he should be out of business, but reputation and prestige kept him in place . A couple of weeks ago , the Wall Street Journal ( 22-23 February) devoted its review page to the question of speed ( “ Sharing Data Faster to Fight an Epidemic” ).  It pointed out an increased usage of pre-print servers to speed transmission of new virology findings. , medRxiv and bioRxiv are cited . It is said that the latter two are getting about ten papers a day on the coronavirus issue : medRxiv has so far published 105 and bioRxiv 67 .  Later a contrast is drawn with New England Journal of Medicine , which at this point was  receiving  between 20 and 45 coronavirus papers a day and had so far published 10 . 

But this is not an argument about the differences and qualities of peer reviewed journals and pre-prints , whatever the WSJ might imagine . It is about the speed and efficiency with which the science available gets to the researcher . It points to the need to get the editorial workflow as fully automated as possible . While this is easy in , say , Plagiarism checking , it is harder checking references and citations . Getting the data associated with the article and ensuring the ability to at least attempt reproducibility are more complex . But here we are , in a race for information yet again , and the publisher , of all people , must appear not as the delaying factor but as the facilitating factor . This is the time to search the archives and bring together historical collections of apposite precedental material . Now is the time for collaborative actions by market competitors to ensure  the completion of collections . 

Once information , of whatever type ,  is publicly available , how soon does it get to the right places? In an increasingly Open Access world , it is even easier for things to get overlooked . And if the vital communication is not even an article ? We could be moving towards the day when specialist researchers register to get alerts . The social media function  and  the publishing function ,become one  . Posting something with this server or that journal will at least mean that every researcher who wants to be has been alerted. 

Finally , what if the vital information is not an article ? Maybe it’s a procedural correction . Or a reproducibility attempt that failed, or simply a description of something noted . Almost 20 years ago I started writing about the Cell Signalling Alliance and their huge datasets held on the supercomputer at UC San Diego . Scientists looking at the chemical and electrical communications between cells are in the frontline in cancer research , immunology , and , of course , viral and bacterial infection . The teams involved , from many different institutions , were , when I last looked , in the habit of recording observations , findings and data as elaborated data sheets which they called Molecular Pages ( . They rightly regarded this , once placed in the relational database built for them by Nature , as a new publishing form . Each page had a DOI . Peer review was community-based and ongoing . And we have to remember our place : we are facilitators serving communities . 

We seem to be in great haste to write off innovation before it has failed enough to have a chance of succeeding . The saying of Mark Twain , to the effect that all successful decisions are the product of experience , and the best experience is gained by failing at something , seems appropriate . . This applies to pre-prints and many other things . If the scholarly communications community , including its publishers , is to respond to the pandemic challenge , then we have to really understand the urgent needs of research teams for the appropriate information of assured quality at the right time , and persist until we have it right , regardless of forms or conventions . And as the results of that flow back through our processes , we will stop talking about trivia like “ digital transformation “” and  start gripping the real customer needs with the more than adequate skills and technologies at our disposal.


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