• The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a mass of academic papers being published about the novel coronavirus.
  • The speed at which the information has been published has meant much of it hasn't been peer-reviewed, resulting in papers promoting false information.
  • As a result, some of the policy responses to the virus, and public perception of it, have been based on misleading, and at times incorrect, information.

One scientific post suggests links between the new coronavirus and HIV, a second says it may have passed to people via snakes, while a third claims it is a pathogen from outer space.

The emergence in China of a new human coronavirus that is causing an epidemic of flu-like disease has sparked a parallel viral spread: science – ranging from robust to rogue – is being conducted, posted and shared at an unprecedented rate.

While speedy scientific analysis is highly useful if it's good, flawed or misleading science can sow panic and may make a disease epidemic worse by prompting false policy moves or encouraging risky behaviour.

A Reuters analysis found that at least 153 studies – including epidemiological papers, genetic analyses and clinical reports – examining every aspect of the disease, now called COVID-19 - have been posted or published since the start of the outbreak. These involved 675 researchers from around the globe.

By comparison, during the 2003 SARS outbreak, it took more than a year for even half that number of studies to be published.

Number of papers published

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The numbers of papers published about COVID-19, SARS and MERS.
Image: Reuters Graphics

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet group of science and medical journals, says he's instituted "surge capacity" staffing to sift through a flood of 30 to 40 submissions of scientific research a day to his group alone.

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.

But much of it is raw. With most fresh science being posted online without being peer-reviewed, some of the material lacks scientific rigour, experts say, and some has already been exposed as flawed, or plain wrong, and has been withdrawn.

"The public will not benefit from early findings if they are flawed or hyped," said Tom Sheldon, a science communications specialist at Britain's non-profit Science Media Centre.

“Preprints“

The threat posed by the new coronavirus requires that information be shared quickly and freely "without being yoked to peer review", Sheldon said – and that is causing problems.

The outbreak has in particular encouraged "preprints" – the practice of researchers immediately posting online their findings without external checks, scrutiny or validation.

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

Some of these preprints were shared widely on social media and picked up by numerous news outlets, further spreading the findings to the public. The chart below shows how many times preprints appeared as links in news stories or tweets.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The spread of preprints.
Image: Reuters Graphics

Preprints allow their authors to contribute to the scientific debate and can foster collaboration, but they can also bring researchers almost instant, international media and public attention.

"Some of the material that's been put out – on pre-print servers for example – clearly has been... unhelpful," said The Lancet's Horton.

"Whether it's fake news or misinformation or rumour-mongering, it's certainly contributed to fear and panic."

BioRxiv has now added a yellow banner warning label across the top of any new coronavirus research:

bioRxiv is receiving many new papers on coronavirus 2019-nCoV. A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.

—BioRxiv

One example was work by scientists in New Delhi, India, who on Jan. 31 posted research pointing to what they called "uncanny" similarities between the new coronavirus and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The work was criticised by scientists around the world and swiftly retracted, but had already featured in more than 17,000 tweets and been picked up by 25 news outlets.

Another was a submission sent to The Lancet by a researcher working in Britain who claims the source of the new coronavirus may be "viral in-fall" from outer space.

And a study published online in the Journal of Medical Virology on Jan. 22, now known as "the snake paper", led to a rush of rumours that the China disease outbreak may be a kind of "snake flu". Leading genetic experts cast swift doubt on the paper's findings, but not before it had gone viral.

Origins of the studies

China appears to be the scientific centre for research on the new coronavirus, with 59% of all names on the studies linked to China-based institutions. China-based researchers also account for almost 62% of the preprint studies specifically.