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Study reveals lack of consistency in reporting of COVID-19-related preprints

Preprints are used to expedite research findings into the public domain, but their inherent uncertainty is not well understood outside the scientific community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for credible and accessible heath information caused a dramatic increase in the use of preprints by media outlets. However, a recent study published in Health Communication found that almost half of 457 news articles from 15 media outlets that cited COVID-19-related preprints did not frame the preprint research as uncertain in any way.

Using two preprint servers (medRxiv and bioRxiv), Altmetrics and coding, Dr Alice Fleerackers and colleagues analysed the use of COVID-19 preprints in the media coverage of the early months of the pandemic, and assessed if and how the uncertain nature of this type of research was explained. Although almost all the news stories hyperlinked to a preprint, there was great variation in how the preprint content was covered. While 80.5% identified the content mentioned as research, nearly 20% included a hyperlink with no explanation of where it linked to or indication that it linked to a preprint.

Regardless of the use of hyperlinks, more than half of stories highlighted the scientific uncertainty associated with preprints, using a variety of framing devices, such as:

  • explaining that the content was unreviewed
  • identifying the content as a preprint
  • adding that further verification was needed
  • noting that the work was preliminary.

The authors speculate that media outlets may avoid adding explanations around preprints because simply using the word ‘research’ gives credibility to the reported content, and there may be reluctance to emphasise any uncertainty. They may also want to avoid alienating audiences who are not familiar with evaluating scientific content. However, it is encouraging that several outlets in the study reported on preprint research with adequate explanation on the uncertainty surrounding science and peer review. As the pandemic has reminded us, it is critical that the public have access to scientific research, and that it is reported by media outlets in an accurate and transparent way.

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Do you think media outlets are responsible for explaining the scientific uncertainty around preprints when reporting their content?

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