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COVID-19 sparks rapid change in the medical research landscape

COVID-19 continues to have an unforeseen global impact, not least on clinical research. A recent report from Digital Science analysed the rapidly developing research landscape in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, identifying the changes that have occurred in a matter of months.

In recent years, preprints have been gaining popularity as efficient tools for accelerated publishing in certain fields. Now, COVID-19 has pushed them to the forefront of medical research communication, likely due to the crucial need for rapid communication between researchers.

By the beginning of May 2020, preprints accounted for a quarter of COVID-19 research output.

However, the authors note that many publishers also increased the speed of their peer review processes or made COVID-19 publications available open access, which may have diminished the extent of preprint uptake over the course of the outbreak.

Regional trends have also been observed in COVID-19 research, with research volume and clinical trial activity mirroring the virus outbreak, initiating in China then migrating West. Major centres for COVID-19 research were identified as areas particularly affected by the virus – China, Italy, the UK, and the US East Coast. While authors from the US and Europe have now published more in selected top tier journals than authors from China, China’s research output has continued to benefit from an ‘early mover advantage’ in terms of citations.

Although one might expect a global pandemic to lead to greater international research collaboration, at the time of the analysis (at a relatively early stage of the outbreak), most of the research on COVID-19 had been authored within countries, with much collaboration focused within institutions. This may simply reflect the time needed to establish relationships to explore this novel research topic, and the report found that greater inter-institutional collaborative networks were starting to develop over time.

The authors observed that COVID-19 has come at the beginning of a technological, social and economic revolution. The speed at which COVID-19 has spread has resulted in unprecedented advances in the field within a matter of months, with open access models, rapid peer review, and preprints all quickly adapting to the circumstances. The authors speculate that perhaps we are glimpsing into the future of all research, with these changes benefiting medical research as a whole in years to come.


Summary by Robyn Foster PhD from Aspire Scientific


With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd

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