Majority of media stories fail to label ‘preprint’ COVID-19 research

A new SFU-led study finds that less than half of media stories in early 2020 featuring COVID-19 ‘preprint’ research—research that has not yet been peer-reviewed—accurately framed the studies as being preprints or unverified research.

SFU Ph.D. student Alice Fleerackers, a researcher in the Scholarly Communications Lab, and publishing program professor Juan Pablo Alperin collaborated with an international team of researchers to analyze more than 500 mentions in over 450 stories from digital news outlets covering preprint COVID-19 research. The study was published this week in Health Communication.

Their analysis is based on 100 COVID-19 preprints posted on top-ranked preprint servers medRxiv and bioRxiv from January 1 to April 30, 2020.

“We found that it wasn’t just newer, less ‘traditional’ media outlets, like Medium or Yahoo! News that did not accurately identify the research as preprint or preliminary,” Fleerackers says. “Even established publications like The New York Times and The Guardian did not consistently describe the preprints they covered as unreviewed.”

The media’s coverage of COVID-19 preprints may in part be a reflection of larger pressures facing the scientific community. “The urgency of the pandemic required researchers and journalists to sacrifice the assurances of peer review for more rapid publication,” Alperin explains. “Just as researchers are adjusting to the new way of rapidly communicating among each other, so too are journalists figuring out how that greater uncertainty needs to be conveyed to the public.”

Fleerackers notes that coverage of preprint research can be helpful to the public. For example, sharing findings about promising prevention strategies as early as possible can save lives. But it can also undermine the public’s trust in the media if a preprint is mischaracterized as widely accepted science but the findings are later discredited.

“We saw this with a couple of high profile preprints published at the beginning of the pandemic, for example, which linked tobacco to COVID-19 prevention,” she explains. “These studies were highly flawed, but they got a ton of media coverage—sparking unnecessary panic and even encouraging some people to pick up smoking.”

The early months of the pandemic offered few examples of best practices to turn to and the science continued to evolve, rapidly changing what was known about the virus and how the public could best protect themselves from becoming infected. Fleerackers adds that reporters covering coronavirus often had little or no expertise in health and science.

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