Thursday, 9 April 2020
More on the Covid-19 Academic Gold Rush
A few days ago, I was accused of "putting the careers of trainees and junior faculty at risk" because a member of my editorial team was slow to complete the review process on a paper that had been submitted to the journal I manage. This reminded me that perhaps 70 per cent of academic publishing is for personnel reasons (to get a job, keep a job, obtain a salary raise, or achieve promotion). I cleave to the old-fashioned view that publishing should take place to further the sharing of good ideas. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the breakneck speed with which papers are propelled into [digital] print nowadays.
In this context, I salute the thoughtful work of Christopher Gomez, Dierdre Hart and JC Gaillard (Gomez and Hart 2013, Gaillard and Gomez 2015) on the phenomenon of the "disaster gold rush". When a major disaster occurs there is an almost reckless desire to be first in print. This also exists outside the academic field. Indeed, someone ought to do a study of the "book of the disaster" and see who gets the award for the earliest "instant book" to commemorate the damage, destruction and casualties. Gomez and his colleagues drew attention to the worst traits of the "gold rush", namely potential abandonment of ethics and rationality in pursuit of a first-past-the-post research gain.
The Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Release (GEJET), as it has come to be known, produced at least 2,000 papers, and a variety of books, during the first three years of its aftermath. This is probably a substantial underestimate. Thereafter, more and more continued to appear. Currently, as an editor I am dealing, nine years after the event, with two or three new submissions on this disaster. However, the GEJET publication surge is beginning to pale into insignificance next to the Covid-19 gold rush. We confront a new phenomenon: intra-disaster research publication.
Between 1st January and 3rd April 2020, 6,659 papers on Covid-19 were published. Some 83% were in peer reviewed journals and 17% (1,135) came out as unreviewed pre-prints. According to a leading researcher (Erica Bickerton), "keeping on top of which preprints ... are relevant and have robust methodologies is one of the key challenges emerging from the scientific response to Covid-19" (Baker 2020). It is of note that many of the articles were in fields other than medicine, genetics and epidemiology, such as sociology, psychology, jurisprudence and international relations. In short, papers on Covid-19 are coming out at the rate of 67 a day. It is highly probably that the flow will amply exceed 100 a day once research really gets into gear. It is predicted that, in the short term, the proportion of pre-prints will rise.
Much of the research that appears will be repetitive, short on insight, premature and lacking in rigour and scientific testability. Hence, these are some good criteria for presenting Covid-19 research to a potential readership.
Rigour. Does the research conform to the standard tenets of the scientific method: reproducibility, verification, completeness?
Novelty. Will the paper add anything to the debate on Covid-19, or our knowledge of the disaster, that is not already known and present in some of the many other articles that are available?
Utility. Will anyone read the paper? Will the benefit from it in any way? How can a potential readership be convinced to read the paper rather than the other 66 that came out on the same day?
Transformation. Is there any way of measuring or monitoring the take-up of ideas that come from this paper?
There is still much value in papers that have no "pathway to impact". Moreover, it may be that the real impact of a piece of research is not being measured, because to do so is difficult or impossible. In that case, there needs to be another kind of justification for publishing the paper.
As the university world undergoes a radical metamorphosis and transfers its activity to remote working and distance learning, we are all asked to "do more" to achieve this seismic shift. One of the greatest failings of the modern university is its utter lack of appreciation that time is not an elastic commodity. If we are asked to do more, it must be at the expense of some other activity. Paradoxically, "doing more" reduces our productivity, because it forces us to do less important–but more urgent–tasks in place of those that produce a more enduring, positive legacy. The compensatory mechanism involves providing evidence of productivity by going hell-bent for the "quick fix". The most absolute casualty is the time to read and bring oneself up to date with the latest developments.
Major disasters usually lead to a substantial increase in information flow. Covid-19 may be different because information may well become available to a geater order of magnitude than ever before.
It is obvious that much of what is written will be read by practically no one beyond the authors and perhaps a couple of referees. What use is it then? One should bear in mind that in older neglected literature there may be nuggets of gold that escaped the rush, if we only care to go back and look for them. But beyond that, the only valid survival technique is to try, perhaps vainly, to learn how to be ultra-selective on what one does read.
Baker, Simon, 2020. Huge Covid-19 output prompting ‘sea change’ in access to research. Times Higher Education, April 9, 2020.
Gomez, C. and D.E Hart 2013. Disaster gold rushes, sophisms and academic neocolonialism: comments on ‘Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North’. Geographical Journal 179(3): 272-277.
Gaillard, J-C. and C. Gomez 2015. Post-disaster research: is there gold worth the rush? Jámbà: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies 7(1): 1-6.