The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on medical publishing, heralding expansions in open access and innovations in preprints. Earlier this week, the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) hosted a free webinar to explore how coronavirus is affecting those working in medical communications. The impact appears to be significant: in a survey of ISMPP members conducted in April 2020, 94% of the 334 respondents indicated that their work had been disrupted, with 62% reporting a great or moderate impact.
We highlight some of the key topics discussed during the webinar. Carolyn Hustad (Merck & Co.) served as the moderator and was joined by:
- Robert Matheis, ISMPP President & CEO
- Alex Torre-Tasso, Envision Pharma Group
- Tyson Tu, Vertex
- Chris Winchester, Oxford PharmaGenesis
- Jason Gardner, CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications
- Katy Amberley, British Society for Haematology (BSH)
- Maria Khan, Wiley.
Congresses: virtual formats and cancellations
The vast majority of ISMPP survey respondents reported being faced with challenges resulting from changes to the format of congresses. Many events have switched to or are exploring virtual formats, while others have been cancelled. As the status of congresses changes every day, keeping in close contact with organisers may be key.
Some congresses are continuing to publish abstracts, yet it is unclear whether presentations will go ahead. With the BSH Annual Scientific Meeting cancelled, the vast majority of authors chose to publish abstracts online rather than retract them. Situations such as this may mean that publication plans need to be revisited to ensure that data beyond the abstract are still communicated in a timely manner. Indeed, 25% of survey respondents have withdrawn accepted abstracts from congresses, 51% submitted content to a different congress and 41% moved straight to journal publication. Publication budgets may also need to be re-examined.
Current virtual offerings vary widely between congresses. Some require standard poster formats, while others are looking to provide ‘snackable’ versions of congress presentations that convey key messages rapidly and clearly. Enhanced content may offer options to delve into the detail or deliver tailored materials to different audiences, while peer-to-peer discussion may be made possible through features such as blogs, chat rooms, or Twitter posters. Potential lasting, open access to virtual congress materials may pose compliance challenges, with concerns raised about inappropriate communication with patients or discussion of off-label or unlicensed uses. Noting that content has not been peer reviewed on e-posters may partially address these concerns. Persistent e-posters might also be perceived as prior publication, although Khan suggested that journal editors may view them as they would a preprint, avoiding problems for subsequent full publications. Ultimately, industry colleagues were urged to engage with congresses to help shape suitable virtual offerings.
Authorship issues related to COVID-19 were reported by 64% of survey respondents, while agency representatives reported that many authors are requesting extensions, slowing overall manuscript development. Recently released ISMPP guidance, designed to be applied in the context of existing company policies, aims to support those striving to progress publications of critical data during the pandemic. Matheis reported that the guidance has been well-received, having already been applied by 17% of survey respondents.
Impact on journals and publishers
Amid the pandemic, delays in peer review and production processes have led to increased average publication times in some areas. However, a continued emphasis on scientific accuracy and quality is crucial, while fast-tracking COVID-19 research. Disruption to the print supply chain has made digital access a priority, while streamlining publication processes, for example through online proofing, may help to make it easier and faster for authors to publish in the future. Preprints could play an important role in enabling scientific exchange in a climate of virtual congresses: in fact, Wiley noted increased interest in medical preprints.
Ultimately, panellists believed that peer reviewed publications remain the gold standard for data dissemination and did not foresee fundamental changes to how data will be published, just when.
Long term impact
Considering future uncertainties, changes to our ways of working may persist. These may be positive, with increased home working reducing reliance on office infrastructure and benefitting work-life balance. Opportunities abound from the uptake of technology, with new models for data dissemination and an increased ability to tap into digital metrics. However, publications will be impacted by delayed data availability, with 69% of survey respondents reporting disruption to clinical trials. Further, contextualisation will be required to interpret adverse events, patient-reported outcomes and missing data. Meanwhile, greater emphasis is likely to be placed on publishing real-world data.
Looking to the future, COVID-19 may signal lasting change for medical communications. Perhaps the high demand for virtual congresses during this crisis will influence future formats, heralding the integration of virtual options into live congresses to deliver the ‘best of both worlds’ while reducing environmental impact. Hopefully, successes with digital publication vehicles will be carried forward, “forcing the future” in optimising communication strategies.