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COVID-19 boosted open access but preprints are only a fraction of pandemic papers

Science – “Critics of scientific publishing had hoped for a bigger shake-up from the global crisis: “…But nearly 2 years later, hopes for a wholesale revolution are fading. Preprints by medical researchers surged, but they remain a small fraction of the literature on COVID-19. Much of that literature is available for free, but access to the underlying data is spotty. COVID-19 journal articles were reviewed faster than previous papers, but not dramatically so, and some ask whether that gain in speed came at the expense of quality. “The overall system demonstrated what could be possible,” says Judy Luther, president of Informed Strategies, a publishing consulting firm. One thing is clear. The pandemic prompted an avalanche of new papers: more than 530,000, released either by journals or as preprints, according to the Dimensions bibliometric database. That fed the largest 1-year increase in all scholarly articles, and the largest annual total ever. That response is “bonkers,” says Vincent Larivière of the University of Montreal, who studies scholarly publishing. “Everyone had to have their COVID moment and write something.”

Helping drive the explosion was a sudden turn to preprints among medical researchers. Various servers accept papers directly from authors, posting them days later after a few basic checks but no peer review; most later appear in journals. A leading server, medRxiv—itself a newcomer, founded only in 2019—posted about 200 preprints on all topics in January 2020; by May 2020, the monthly tally had swelled to more than 2000, about three-quarters of them about the pandemic coronavirus. Traffic to medRxiv skyrocketed in tandem, with abstracts viewed a dizzying 6.1 million times in July, up from 30,000 in August 2019. Some preprints delivered findings that physicians immediately put to use at patients’ bedsides. News that the corticosteroid dexamethasone reduced deaths in severe illness was published as a preprint in June 2020, but not in a peer-reviewed journal until February. By then, doctors had been giving the steroid for months…”

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