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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1 Comment so far

  1. gerard Orourke on March 16, 2020 11:29


    As always, the community will find the best way to address their most pressing need. Today it is fast research, yesterday may have been publishing credit and a financial revenue stream . . .