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Is research breaking the speed of light correct? Yes, in an emergency situation for scientists.

Several people asked me this question in the past one month: Wuhan coronavirus Wuhan coronavirus research results are  being distributed on preprint servers like bioRxiv, which are not peer reviewed. Why is this?

Yes, this is true. Scientists are posting their papers on the China outbreak as fast as they can write them, skipping traditional journals.

This is because that process of submitting to a journal, peer-reviewing and revisions typically moves a lot slower than a disease outbreak. Rather than trying to submit it to a journal, scientists thought it was important to say quickly what was happening. Just press a button or click and it’s on the internet. It was probably good for science in the present conditions. It also is good for science communication and infectious disease control.

The Reuters analysis scanned material on Google Scholar and on three preprint servers bioRxiv, medRxiv and ChemRxiv. Of the 153 studies identified till date, some 60% were preprints.

Much of this work, according to those watching its flow and content, is rigorous and useful. Vaccine developers, clinicians, diagnostic makers and policy agencies have snapped up genetic codes, phylogenetic trees and epidemiological models to help them start work on catching the virus and containing its spread.

Results: the speed and sheer number of preprints has been unprecedented. About two-thirds of articles posted on the preprint server bioRxiv go on to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

During this emergency situation, journals also have activated various emergency protocols to speed things up during the outbreak—faster publication cycles and dropped paywalls.

The primary benefit is probably in scientists being able to improve their work, to see what other scientists are working on, and come up with some consensus. It makes science faster and better, and it’s helping life scientists join other fields in embracing a new mode. It can save lives.

But it’s also a little scary. Scientists aren’t the only ones who can download a preprint. That opens up the work to possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation by everybody who can just have a look at it, perceive it in different ways and the more scary part of this - ‘talk science’ in the way ‘that suits them’.

A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice (or) health-related behaviour, or be reported in news media as established information.

So in these difficult times, while it is correct to speed up things for the scientific community , for the common public, it is utmost important to be cautious about what they read and listen. Listen to only scientists and not to everybody who can just talk or write science.

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