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The Evolution of Scholarly Publishing During COVID-19

The pandemic has necessitated significant shifts within the scholarly publishing environment. COVID-19 research has reached readers at record speeds, and for many major publishers, been made available at no cost to readers. Preprints are now mainstream and are indexed in PubMed, as well as on preprint servers such as medRxiv and bioRxiv. But are these changes here to stay? And what other changes has COVID-19 brought about within the scholarly publishing world? 

Perhaps the most obvious change in publishing during the past 6 months is the “extraordinary proliferation of research and commentary on the pandemic” (Bell & Green, 2020, p. 379). The scholarly publishing community has placed an increased value on open science. A majority of large publishers have made their COVID-19 content freely accessible. In a recent post on The Scholarly Kitchen, “both the positive (rapid reporting and sharing of information) and the negatives (the glut of bad science being issued as preprints and promoted via mainstream media without proper curation) are now evident, with the good generally outweighing the bad” (Crotty, 2020). 

The need for increased speed of publication has many critics afraid that pushing papers through the peer review process quickly will result in increased retractions. In fact, as of October 15, 2020, RetractionWatch lists 36 retracted COVID-19 papers, including articles from prestigious journals such as  The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine. Alongside this “crisis in peer review” is a “less widely publicised crisis in peer reviewers, with willing and able peer reviewers increasingly difficult to find” (Bell & Green, 2020, p. 380). While the number of submissions is ever increasing, “academics are baulking at being asked to review them” (Bell & Green, 2020, 380). Additionally, article submissions from women authors have decreased presumably due to the fact that “the effects of lockdown have disproportionately disadvantaged women across the disciplines” (Smart, 2020, p. 196). This has also likely contributed to the shortage of peer reviewers. 

And let’s not forget the financial impact of COVID-19. Researchers are competing for limited grant funding. Many large publishers are freezing subscription prices. Library collection budgets are being cut, forcing libraries to cancel subscriptions to valued resources, which will further impact publishers' and researchers. Research societies that rely on annual meetings for large portions of their income don’t expect to hold large meetings until late in 2021 at the earliest, and expect to see a decline in membership as discretionary income of individual members becomes scarce (Crotty, 2020).  

It’s not all doom and gloom though. On the bright side, “recognition of the need to fund scientific research has never been stronger (Crotty, 2020). Governments and funding agencies now see the value of open science, which “creates the potential for continuing progress through the creation of incentives and eventually, after normality resumes, the dedication of increased funding to both support existing OA models and to drive the creation of new models” (Crotty , 2020). While the landscape of scholarly publishing is constantly evolving, COVID-19 has undoubtedly already had a dramatic influence on this evolution. 

References:

Bell, K., & Green, J. (2020). Premature evaluation? Some cautionary thoughts on global pandemics and scholarly publishing. Critical Public Health, 30:4, 379-383, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2020.1769406

Crotty, D. (2020, August 4). Two steps forward, one step back: The pandemic’s impact on Open Access progress. The Scholarly Kitchen. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/08/04/two-steps-forward-one-step-back-the-pandemics-impact-on-open-access-progress/

RetractionWatch, (2020). Retracted coronavirus (COVID-19) papers. RetractionWatch [Weblog, accessed October 15, 2020], https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/

Smart P. (2020). Publishing during pandemic: Innovation, collaboration, and change. Learned publishing: journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, 33(3), 194–197. https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1314

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