The pandemic has upended many practices, among them peer review of technical medical and scientific articles.
Lax Peer Review + Social Media = Misunderstanding Science
Pre-COVID, the preprint sites bioRxiv.org ("bio-archive," founded in 2013) and medRxiv ("med-archive," founded in 2019) were mainly the province of science and medical journalists, and of course researchers. Preprints are technical papers that haven't yet been peer-reviewed, a process that can take months. Preliminary screens remove outrageous claims and check for plagiarism.
Until a few months into the pandemic, the warning on both sites not to report on these papers was hard to navigate to, but seasoned journalists knew to respect the conditions. With general assignment reporters suddenly covering a health care crisis that increasingly required knowledge of virology, immunology, and biotech, medRxiv and bioRxiv became great sources of news.
The disclaimer was moved to the opening page: "Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information."
The warning hasn't helped.
Skipping peer review leads to confusion and the spread of misinformation, especially through the echo chamber of social media. "COVID Vaccine Preprint Study Prompts Twitter Outrage," for example, details the hoopla over a medRxiv preprint that, according to experts on the statistics used, grossly overestimates the risk of heart inflammation in male teens after taking the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The yelling continues.
To continue reading, go to my DNA Science blog at Public Library of Science.