Science in motion: A qualitative analysis of journalists’ use and perception of preprints
Preprint posted on 4 February 2022 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.02.03.479041v1.full
The COVID-19 pandemic initiated a well-documented increase in the number of preprints posted, viewed, and cited (1). This influx of pandemic-related preprints also meant that preprinted research was, for the first time, frequently reported in the mainstream media. Prior to the pandemic, there was a general hesitancy on the part of journalists to report on preprints: a reluctance that could be attributed to the perceived risk of writing about yet-to-be peer-reviewed research for the general public, who might be less familiar with the concept of preprints or preliminary results. However, the urgency of scientists to report new COVID-19 research findings, and of journalists to report these findings in the media, meant that preprints became a much more dominant part of the research and science communication landscape from March 2020 onwards. The research to preprint to reporting pipeline is not always straightforward: some flawed preprints related to COVID-19 did receive considerable media attention, despite being incorrect or unfounded. It should be noted that the majority of these flawed preprints were largely disregarded or critiqued by the scientific community, and often withdrawn as a result. Further, peer-review is not infallible, and several problematic peer-reviewed papers have been widely reported on in the press prior to their withdrawal. However, reluctance to share unverified science might contribute to further hesitancy around reporting on preprinted research.
In this preprint, the authors examine how journalists say they are covering preprints, and whether the COVID-19 pandemic might have a long-term influence over the prevalence of preprints in the media. To do this, they frame journalistic use of preprints as a response to post-normal science (PNS), defined with four features, all with relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic:
1) High levels of scientific uncertainty
2) Science policy considerations that involve values, not just evidence
3) High relevance to society
4) An urgent need for political decision-making
As the authors note, how journalists pivot from ‘normal’ science reporting to those better-suited to PNS has not been well-documented. This preprint therefore investigates the use of a novel context (COVID-19 preprints) in a PNS scenario. In their study the authors address the following questions in interviews with 19 health and science journalists:
1) What benefits and risks do journalists consider in deciding whether to cover preprints?
2) What practices do journalists use to find, verify, and communicate the preprints they cover?
3) How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected journalists’ use of preprints?
– Generally, the journalists interviewed in the study described reporting on preprints as a risk-benefit pay off. Interestingly a lot of the benefits of reporting on preprints are similar to those that come with depositing research on a preprint server – namely the timely nature of new findings (not delayed by slow peer review or editorial processes) and the accessibility of preprints (not behind a paywall).
– The risk associated with reporting on preprints meant that a lot of journalists claimed to express caution in their use of preprinted research. Interestingly, when they did decide to use preprints in reports for widespread media outlets, journalists said their approach to verifying results was similar to normal science journalisms best practices: critical reading of methods and results, verifying results with other scientists, and comparisons to other published studies.
– Journalists said that they were clear about the preprinted nature of new research, and in interviews said that they flagged research as unverified in articles. Whilst some journalists said they reported on preprints as if they were formally published papers, most journalists stated that they provided some context and limitations in their articles.
– The response by journalists to the pandemic with regards reporting on preprints was surprisingly variable amongst those interviewed. Most journalists interviewed stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed their use of preprints, but whilst some experienced a total shift of never using preprints to reporting on them frequently, others were much more moderate in their views.
– Generally, the journalists interviewed indicated that an increase in preprint reporting had been a ‘net positive’ in the context of science communication and the pandemic. The findings of this study suggest that reporting of preprints is likely to continue post-pandemic for science and health stories, marking a longer-term change to science reporting practices.
– The authors of the preprint do note that if this trend continues, scientists should be conscious of journalistic bias or reporting errors in the way new research is reported, and caution that scientists should always be aware of how they share their findings with the public through journalists.
– Lastly, and importantly, the authors of the preprint emphasise that both scientists and journalists have a role in the responsible reporting of science to the public. In helping journalists to verify preprinted research, scientists are playing a responsible role in science communication, and also feeding into the evolving preprint review landscape, which separates peer review and peer commenting on new research from exclusively being linked to a journal.
Why is this important?
As noted, preprints have seen a big increase in popularity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – not just in medical sciences, but across life science research (1). There are lots of benefits to researchers in preprinting their research, but also benefits to the public, many of which were highlighted in this study (2). Of course, reporting on any scientific research (not just preprints) to the general public comes with responsibility, and this preprint notes that journalists say they are generally aware of this when reporting on public-interest science, particularly in the context of preprints. Whilst there has been some controversy in the past over how preprints can and should be communicated to the public, this preprint shows that preprints are increasingly part of the science publishing and communication landscape.
Perhaps in the future, appropriate training and development for journalists by professional bodies could be implemented to give journalists confidence in reporting on preprints appropriately and remove the ‘fear’ associated with using preprinted research in public communication.
Posted on: 3 March 2022Read preprint
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