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Pandemic publishing: Medical journals strongly speed up their publication process for COVID-19

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In times of public crises, including the current Covid-19 pandemic, rapid dissemination of relevant scientific knowledge is of paramount importance. The duration of scholarly journals’ publication process is one of the main factors that may hinder quick delivery of new information. Following initiatives of medical journals to accelerate their publication process, this study assesses whether medical journals have managed to speed up their publication process for Coronavirus related articles. It studies the duration of 14 medical journals’ publication process both during and prior to the current pandemic. Assessing a total of 669 articles, the study concludes that medical journals have indeed strongly accelerated their publication process for Coronavirus related articles since the outbreak of the pandemic: time between submission and publication has decreased on average by 49%. The largest decrease in number of days between submission and publication of articles was due to a decrease in time required for peer review. For articles not related to Covid-19, no acceleration of the publication process is found. While the acceleration of journals’ publication process is laudable from the perspective of quick information dissemination, it also may raise concerns relating to the peer review process’ quality and the quality of the resulting publications.
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RESEARCH ARTICLE
Pandemic publishing: Medical journals
strongly speed up their publication
process for COVID-19
Serge P. J. M. Horbach
1,2
1
Radboud University Nijmegen, Faculty of Science, Institute for Science in Society,
P.O. Box 9010, 6500 GL Nijmegen, The Netherlands
2
Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Faculty of Social Sciences, Leiden University,
Wassenaarseweg 62A, 2333 AL Leiden, The Netherlands
Keywords: COVID-19, peer review, publication delay, publication process, publication time,
scientific publishing
ABSTRACT
In times of public crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, rapid dissemination of
relevant scientific knowledge is of paramount importance. The duration of scholarly journals
publication process is one of the main factors that may hinder quick delivery of new information.
Following initiatives of medical journals to accelerate their publication process, this study assesses
whether medical journals have managed to speed up their publication process for coronavirus-
related articles. It studies the duration of 14 medical journalspublication processes both during and
prior to the current pandemic. Assessing 669 articles, the study concludes that medical journals
have indeed strongly accelerated their publication process for coronavirus-related articles since the
outbreak of the pandemic: The time between submission and publication has decreased on average
by 49%. The largest decrease in number of days between submission and publication of articles
was due to a decrease in time required for peer review. For articles not related to COVID-19, no
acceleration of the publication process is found. While the acceleration of the publication process
is laudable from the perspective of quick information dissemination, it also may raise concerns
relating to the quality of the peer review process and of the resulting publications.
1. BACKGROUND
The world is facing an unprecedented health crisis affecting nearly all parts of society. In these
times, access to the most state-of-the-art scientific knowledge is paramount to tackling the crisis.
Academic journals and scholarly publishers are hence called upon to make new knowledge
openly available and deliver new insights quickly.
In the current COVID-19 era, it is clear that new knowledge is direly needed. Scientists all
over the world have stepped in to do experiments, observational studies and new analyses to
obtain relevant information. However fast we would like to have access to this information, the
scientific method used to obtain it requires time. Drug trials and vaccine creations do not happen
overnight (Thorp, 2020). However, once such information has been gathered, it needs to be dis-
seminated to all those potentially in a position to use it, as quick as possible. Traditionally, scholarly
journals have been one of the main outlets to facilitate this (Horbach & Halffman, 2018).
One of the factors possibly hindering quick delivery of new information through scholarly
journals is the duration of their publication process. Through editorial assessment and peer
an open access journal
Citation: Horbach, S. P. J. M. (2020).
Pandemic publishing: Medical journals
strongly speed up their publication
process for COVID-19. Quantitative
Science Studies,1(3), 10561067.
https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00076
DOI:
https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00076
Supporting Information:
https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00076
Received: 19 April 2020
Accepted: 2 June 2020
Corresponding Author:
Serge P. J. M. Horbach
s.horbach@science.ru.nl
Handling Editor:
Vincent Larivière
Copyright: © 2020 Serge P. J. M.
Horbach. Published under a Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International
(CC BY 4.0) license.
The MIT Press
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review, journals select which articles deserve to be published on their pages, ideally filtering out
invalid, erroneous, or otherwise problematic research. Though celebrated as being one of the hall-
marks of science, the peer review process is also regularly criticized. Commentators blame it for
being inconsistent (Peters & Ceci, 1982), essentially flawed (Smith, 2006), biased (Teplitskiy,
Acuna, et al., 2018), andparticularly relevant in these times of crisisslow (Nguyen,
Haddaway, et al., 2015).
Several studies have previously aimed to assess the typical duration of journalspublication
process (Lin, Hou, & Wu, 2016;Tosi, 2009). In their analyses, researchers commonly distinguish
two stages of this process: the review stage (the stage between article submission and formal
acceptance) and the production stage (the stage between acceptance and final publication, either
online or in print). In a meta-analysis including over 2,700 journal articles, Björk and Solomon
(2013) find considerable differences in turnaround times (the period between submission and
publication of a journal article, sometimes also called publication delays) between research
disciplines. For biomedical journals, they find an average duration of the review stage of just over
4 months, while the production stage takes on average about 5 months. The latter stage can
be shortened for some journals by implementing online-firstinitiatives. Clearly, such lengthy
turnaround times are highly undesirable from the perspective of quick delivery of novel knowl-
edge in light of the current health crisis.
Two major responses to circumvent long turnaround times can currently be witnessed. From
an author perspective, commentators are reporting a sharp increase in the use of preprint
servers. On these online platforms, authors upload their manuscript, making it publicly acces-
sible immediately upon finalization of the text (Gunnarsdottir, 2005). Because no review,
editorial assessment, or copyediting takes place, manuscripts can be made accessible without
publication delay. However, as manuscripts are only reviewed once they are available for any-
body to read and use, scholars warn of potentially incorrect results spreading without editorial
assessment filtering them. In fact, several cases of invalid research regarding COVID-19 being
published as preprints have already been reported (Heimstädt, 2020;Marcus & Oransky, 2020).
Preprint servers are now trying to mitigate this by explicitly posting (health) warnings on their
articles. It should be noted, though, that this is not specific to preprints, as journal articles can
require postpublication corrections and retractions as well (Horbach & Halffman, 2019).
Several articles related to COVID-19 have already gone through this process (Gautret, Lagier,
et al., 2020).
From the publishersside, many journals and publishers are currently modifying their editorial
procedures and policies to warrant fast dissemination of relevant information (Redhead, 2020).
For instance, eLife announced it would curtail requests for additional experiments during revi-
sions, suspend its deadline for submitting revisions, and make the posting of preprints to
bioRxiv or medRxiv the default for all eLife submissions. It would also specifically mobilize early-
career researchers to become reviewing editors and reviewers to extend the journals reviewer
pool (Eisen, Akhmanova, et al., 2020). Similarly, Nature put out an open invitation to researchers
with relevant expertise to review coronavirus-related papers over short time (Nature,2020).
Hence, journals and publishers are aiming to attract reviewers who can assist in the rapid pub-
lication of new findings that are relevant to tackle the health crisis. The Medical Journal of
Australia (MJA) has drafted policies related to both preprints and rapid peer review, setting up fast
lanesfor coronavirus-related research:
The MJA has stepped up to play its part in meeting this crisis, including ultrarapid review of
SARS-CoV-2 manuscripts and preprint publication of unedited papers, to ensure that the
newest data and viewpoints are available as soon as possible. (Talley, 2020)
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The Royal Society Open Publishing announced the establishing of a similar fast lane for their
registered reports on coronavirus-related content. They have even gathered a group of 700 reviewers
who have committed to review a paper in 24 to 48 hours when called up on (Brock, 2020). The
journal also acknowledges a widely voiced concern related to these fast dissemination models:
The ultra-rapid review and publication model entails a risk of error, but sharing important informa-
tion too slowly is a much greater hazard(Talley, 2020).
In this article, we assess whether the scholarly publishing community has succeeded in speeding
up the dissemination of coronavirus-related content. To do so, we mainly focus on the duration
of journalspublication processes both prior to and during the present pandemic. In addition, we
briefly assess the use of preprint servers and the uptake of preprint articles in academic journals.
2. METHODS
For our analysis, we use a repository of coronavirus-related research articles established by the
Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS). The repository is based on databases of
CORD-19, Dimensions, and the World Health Organization (WHO), and includes articles on
COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and related (corona) viruses and infectious diseases. In particular, this
means that the database contains journal articles and preprints that predate the current COVID-19
pandemic, as it also includes, for instance, articles on the 2002 SARS virus and disease. For
brevitys sake, all such articles will in the remainder of this article by described as coronavirus-
relatedarticles. A full description of the database as well as access to all relevant data is available
(CWTS, 2020). Colavizza, Costas, et al. (2020) provide a description and analysis of parts of this
database. All results in this article are based on the April 4, 2020 release of the database. We note
that the majority of articles in the data set originate from the CORD-19 database. Some doubt has
been raised about the relevance of some of this databases articles to the current pandemic
(Colavizza et al., 2020), but for our purposes, the scope of the database seems reasonable.
Based on this data set, several analyses were performed.
2.1. Duration of JournalsPublication Process
We analyzed the duration of the publication process, in number of days, for a sample of 529 journal
articles. Of these, 259 articles were published during the present pandemic (i.e., from January 1,
2020) and 270 were published prior to the pandemic (i.e., before October 1, 2019). The dates
January 1 and October 1 were chosen based on the first cases of COVID-19 appearing in China
in November 2019. Hence, October 1 ensures that articles in the control group were published
before the pandemic emerged, and January 1 allows for work to be done and submitted after the
first cases appeared. The articles were published in 14 different journals. Journals were selected
based on their number of articles both prior to and during the current pandemic as well as the avail-
ability of data on when articles were submitted, accepted, and published. We selected the 10 jour-
nals publishing most coronavirus-related articles in general, supplemented by the five journals
publishing most coronavirus-related content since the start of the pandemic that make publication
data (submission, acceptance, and publishing) available. One journal, Viruses, matches both criteria.
The list of journals used in this analysis, including their number of articles, as well as the journals
discarded because no data on submission, acceptance, or publication dates were available, is
added as supplementary material A. From those journals, we sampled all articles published since
the start of the pandemic and matched those to an equal number of articles published in the same
journal prior to the pandemic to form a control group. If the control group had fewer articles, we
used this number of articles and only selected the most recent articles after the pandemic began. If
fewer than 10 articles were published after the start of the pandemic, we nonetheless sampled
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Table 1. Duration of the publication process for coronavirus-related papers, distributed over Review stage (between submission and acceptance) and Production stage
(between acceptance and publication). Data distinguishes between the period before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. All durations are given in days
Journal title
Number of articles
Number of days for
publicationDuring pandemic
Number of days for
publicationBefore pandemic
During
pandemic
Before
pandemic Total
Review
stage
Production
stage
Entire
publication
process
95% CI Entire
publication
process
Review
stage
Production
stage
Entire
publication
process
95% CI Entire
publication
process
Archives of Virology 9 10 19 127.1 70.1 197.2 162.0 232.4 122.6 37.9 160.5 107.0 214.0
Eurosurveillance 30 30 60 8.3 1.7 10.0 7.1 12.9 105.9 62.4 168.3 113.2 223.5
International Journal
of Infectious
Diseases
32 32 64 23.7 5.3 28.9 14.8 43.1 77.0 8.5 85.5 64.7 106.3
Journal of Hospital
Infection
24 24 48 10.0 5.6 15.6 1.8 29.5 59.5 15.8 75.3 55.9 94.7
Journal of Medical
Virology
13 13 26 10.3 4.9 15.2 11.8 18.7 107.3 64.4 117.3 56.0 178.7
Journal of Virology 4 10 14 37.0 41.5 78.5 19.6 137.4 61.5 77.9 139.4 119.5 159.3
PLOS ONE 14 14 28 183.3 25.9 209.2 153.9 264.5 230.9 25.9 256.7 164.2 349.2
Scientific Reports 14 14 28 147.9 18.4 166.4 133.0 199.7 216.7 57.9 274.6 197.2 352.1
Travel Medicine
and Infectious
Disease
45 45 90 12.6 2.7 15.3 8.8 21.9 91.5 5.1 96.6 71.9 121.4
Vaccine 9 10 19 148.2 22.7 170.9 114.0 227.7 154.3 14.5 168.8 96.3 241.3
Veterinary
Microbiology
9 10 19 89.6 4.3 93.9 70.5 117.3 69.2 2.4 71.6 59.2 84.0
Virology 8 10 18 90.0 3.3 93.3 63.9 122.6 63.3 5.6 68.9 51.3 86.5
Virus Research 10 10 20 124.2 2.4 126.6 89.7 163.5 119.4 9.2 128.6 37.4 219.8
Viruses 38 38 76 32.5 4.2 36.7 28.6 44.8 33.3 3.7 37.0 30.1 43.9
Total 259 270 529 51.0 9.3 60.3 50.9 69.8 95.9 23.6 117.4 103.9 130.9
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10 articles for the control group. For the control group, we sampled articles starting with publi-
cations in 2019 (but before October 1) and moving backwards, in order to make sure editorial
policies most closely resemble those in the pandemic. Table 1 presents the list of journals used,
including the number of articles sampled per journal. Information on the dates of submission,
acceptance, and publication was manually retrieved from the journals website. Some journals
distinguished between publication online and appearance in the print issue of the journal; for
these journals we always selected the date of online publication. Other journals, for instance
online-only journals, do not distinguish between these dates, and date of publication automat-
ically refers to online publication.
To control for potential effects specific to coronavirus-related papers, we selected, for all
journals in our sample, the 10 most recently published articles (as of April 16, 2020) about
noncoronavirus-related content. In particular, these were articles not present in our previous data
set and articles not mentioning COVID-19, coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, or Cov-19 in their title, key-
words, and abstract. All the 140 articles in this control group were published during the current
pandemic, with 64% published in April 2020, 32% in March, 1% in February, and 3% in January.
2.2. Posting of Preprints
We assessed the usage of preprint servers as a fast way of disseminating academic knowledge
by counting the number of preprints on coronavirus-related content both during and before the
current pandemic. For this we used all preprints in the database, and did not use a more nar-
row sampling strategy. Hence, we include all coronavirus-related preprints. In addition, we
analyzed the number of preprints that were also published as journal articles and the average
number of days between posting of the preprint and the publication of the corresponding jour-
nal article. The analysis is based on the linkage of preprints and journal articles in the
Dimensions Database (https://docs.dimensions.ai/dsl/index.html).
3. RESULTS
Figure 1 presents an overview of the number of journal articles and preprints per year in our
data set. Unsurprisingly, it shows a sharp increase for both publication types since the out-
break of the current pandemic. However, earlier pandemics, such as the SARS outbreak in
2002, are clearly visible as well.
Figure 1. The number of journal articles and preprints related to COVID-19 per year in our database.
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Figure 2 compares the overall duration of journalspublication processes prior to and during
the present pandemic. It demonstrates that, on average, journals have strongly increased the
speed of their processes for COVID-19 publications: The average turnaround time in our journal
sample has decreased from 117 days to 60 days. Comparing the 95% confidence intervals of both
statistics shows the decrease to be highly substantial and significant.
Table 1 presents descriptive statistics on the average duration of the publication process for
coronavirus-related articles in journals in our sample. It distinguishes between the periods before
and during the pandemic and it splits the entire publication process into the Review stage
(between submission and acceptance) and Production stage ( between acceptance and publication).
Figure 3 presents a graphical overview of the average decrease in turnaround time in the
period during the crisis compared to the period prior to the pandemic. It again distinguishes
between the Review and Production stages of the publication process. Note that negative numbers
in this case indicate an increase in turnaround time. The figure indicates that the Review stage
shortens for 10 of the 14 journals in our sample, while nine journals managed to shorten their
Production stage. Average acceleration is around 50% for both stages, but it goes up to nearly
100% in some journals.
To check whether the acceleration of publication processes is specific to coronavirus-related
papers, we analyzedthe turnaround times for noncoronavirus-relatedarticles published since the
start of the pandemic. For all journals in our sample, we selected the 10 most recently published
articles (as of April 16, 2020) about noncoronavirus-related content. In particular, these were
articles not present in our previous data set and articles not mentioning COVID-19, coronavirus,
SARS-CoV-2, or Cov-19 in their title, keywords, and abstract. For these articles we also analyzed
the turnaround times of their publication process. The results are presented in Figure 4. The figure
indicates that for most journals, articles not related to COVID-19 have very similar turnaround
times to articles published before the pandemic. Unpacking the publication process in the
Review and Production stage, we conclude that, again, noncoronavirus-related articles follow
a very similar pattern to articles published before the pandemic.
Figure 2. Average duration of the publication process for coronavirus-related papers in our sample
of journals, as well as the total average over all journals (Total). Durations are given in number of days
and distinguish between the period before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Error bars represent
the 95% confidence interval.
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Figure 4. Average duration of the publication process for papers in our sample of journals, as well
as the total average over all journals (Total). Durations are given for articles published before the
pandemic and articles published during the pandemic, both those related to coronaviruses and
those not related to coronaviruses. Durations are given in number of days. Error bars represent
the 95% confidence interval.
Figure 3. Relative average decrease in time spend per journal on the Review stage, Production
stage and Entire publication process in the journals of our sample, as well as for the total set of
journals (Total). Decrease is measured as the shortening of duration in the pandemic era compared
to the prepandemic era (i.e., negative values indicate an increase in duration during the pandemic
compared to the period before the pandemic).
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As a brief addition to the above analysis, we now turn our analysis towards the posting of
preprints. As was shown in Figure 1, the number of preprints on coronavirus-related content
has seen a sharp increase since the outbreak of the pandemic. At the day of sampling, 2,102
preprints were posted on seven preprint servers: SSRN Electronic Journal, bioRxiv, ChemRxiv,
JMIR Preprints, Research Square, and medRxiv. We note that even though arXiv publications
are included in the Dimensions database, they are not included in the April 4 release of the data
set we used, due to technical issues. Out of the 2,102 preprints in our data set, 129 have currently
also appeared as journal articles. Due to the small number of preprints being published as journal
articles, no statistically relevant conclusions can be drawn about the uptake of preprints in
journals. However, analyzing the average duration between the posting of the preprint and the
publication of the corresponding journal article we see a steady increase, ranging from, on
average, 137 days in 2017 to just over 200 days in 2020. Currently, we do not see any indication
of acceleration of the uptake of preprints in journals since the outbreak of the current pandemic.
However, the sample is small and these statements should be treated with caution.
The 129 preprints were published in 68 different academic journals with only five journals
publishing at least five preprints. The three journals publishing most preprints were Journal of
Virology,PLOS ONE, and Scientific Reports, all of which are in our sample of journals used for
the previous analyses. Hence, for the preprints in these journals, we can analyze the turnaround
times of their publication process. The results are presented in Table 2.
All but one of these preprint-journal article pairs were published prior to the current pandemic.
However, on comparing the results in Tables 1 and 2it becomes clear that turnaround times for
articles that previously appeared as preprints are much shorter than the average turnaround times
in these journals. In fact, for these prepandemic articles, turnaround times are even shorter than
their average postpandemic counterparts.
4. DISCUSSION
To tackle the current health crisis, many have urged publishers to disseminate relevant academic
knowledge as fast as possible. Acknowledging that common publication delays in medical
journals are unacceptable in the current era, journals are expected to decrease the turnaround
times of their publication process. The results of our study indicate that some journals have indeed
managed to do so.
Our results on the average turnaround times of journal articles prior to the current pandemic
correspond well with earlier findings of studies on publication delays in medical journals (Björk &
Solomon, 2013). However, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical journals
Table 2. Average duration of the publication process for articles that previously appeared as preprints.
Durations are given in number of days. The duration of the publication process is distributed over the
Review stage (between submission and acceptance) and Production stage (between acceptance and
publication). On top of the publication process, the table also indicates the average number of days
between publication of the preprint and submission of the journal article
Journal title
Review
stage
Production
stage
Entire
publication
Process
Time from preprint
publication to
journal submission
Journal of Virology 55.6 70.7 126.4 25.4
PLOS ONE 126.6 21.9 148.5 8.6
Scientific Reports 105.3 16.3 121.6 56.1
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have managed to greatly accelerate their publication processes to make them nearly twice as fast
for coronavirus-related articles. In contrast, articles not related to coronaviruses that were pub-
lished since the beginning of the pandemic do not show any acceleration. Their turnaround times
are similar to articles published before the pandemic.
While it seems reasonable that journals might encounter difficulties in attracting reviewers
with relevant expertiseas those are probably active scientists working on novel research
themselvesthe opposite seems to be the case. From our results, it seems that journals are finding
enough reviewers willing to review coronavirus-related papers at very short notice. However, this
conclusion should be treated with caution, as no data is available on who reviewed the papers.
Maybe the same few experts reviewed a lot more than usual; maybe relevant expertisewas
taken as a relative criterion, with journals using reviewers that usually would not have been
considered experts. The fact that noncoronavirus-related papers are published at similar speeds
during and before the pandemic seems to indicate that journals are also not facing more issues
with attracting reviewers for those papers.
As preprint articles are not being included in medical journalsmore quickly, it seems that either
authors are not submitting preprint articles to journals more quickly, or journals are prioritizing
content that has not appeared as preprints. Qualitative follow-up research interviewing authors
and editors on their submission and review practices regarding preprint articles could shed further
light on this.
Some of the most prominent, high-impact medical journals are not part of our sample because
they do not share all relevant data on submission, acceptance,and publication dates. Comparing
the total number of published articles in high-impact journals such as the British Medical Journal,
The Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of
Medicine does not give a clear indication of faster publication: These four journals published
864, 421, 351, and 307 articles respectively in 2020, according to a Web of Science search.
Over the same period in 2019 they published 874, 497, 335, and 334 articles respectively.
Hence, most show a small decrease in the total number of published articles. Consequently, if
they managed to speed up their publication process for coronavirus-related articles, this might
have been at the expense of other content being published less, or less quickly. However, other
factors might be at play as well, including a change in the volume of submissions during the
COVID-19 pandemic (which could have impacted these journals in particular, as their authors
may be practitioners at the sharp end of patient care) and page budget constraints.
Even though the acceleration of journalspublication processes is laudable from the perspective
of quick information dissemination, it also raises several questions and concerns.
First, one may wonder whether faster is always better. Even though the two do not necessarily
exclude each other, it seems reasonable that there is a balance, or perhaps even a trade-off, between
speed and quality in peer review. At the review stage, especially, legitimate concerns can be raised
about whether speeding up the review process might harm the processs ability to filter incorrect or
invalid findings. Such research slipping through peer review might require corrections or retractions
in the future. Given the potentially rapid uptake of medical knowledge in policy and clinical
contexts, such corrections might come too late, as potential harm might already have been done.
Commentators have raised this concern regarding the use of information in preprints, but it similarly
applies to journal articles. In fact, false information spreading through journal articles is arguably
more damaging, as it has the appearance of being peer reviewedand hence properly verified.
Scholars have repeatedly warned that a substantial share of articles (hastily) published during this
crisis will require future corrections (Marcus & Oransky, 2020). Formal expressions of concern about
papers used to make policy decisions have already been issued (Voss, 2020).
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As assessing the quality of the published record or the review process was beyond the scope of
this study, the concern that faster publication processes decrease publication quality is yet to be
verified. Future research should therefore analyze whether shorter review processes during the
COVID-19 pandemic have affected the quality of thepublication process and, for instance, have
led to an increase in corrections or retractions of published articles.
While acceleration of the review stage might evoke quality issues, this arguably applies less to
the production stage of the publication process. Journalsachievements in shortening this stage of
the publication process for coronavirus-related content is entirely laudable. However, this might
raise questions about why publication delays at this stage are usually higher and whether journals
will aim and be able to maintain such standards in a postcrisis era. One potential explanation for
the shortened production stage is that publishers or journal editors now prioritize coronavirus-
related research articles at the expense of other articles. However, our data on noncoronavirus
related articles published during the pandemic seem to contradict this. It seems as though journals
are managing to speed up editorial work for coronavirus-related contentwhile maintaining stan-
dards for other articles.
Several journals show a substantial lengthening of the production stage. This might be caused
by an increase in the number of manuscripts submitted to the respective journals. For journals
showing an increase in total turnaround time, this seems to be concentrated in the production
stage, after manuscript acceptance. As editors themselves might be practicing scientists, the over-
load of newly submitted manuscripts might be a cause of this additional delay.
This study suffers from various limitations in its analysis. First, it could only analyze those
journal articles that have been published. This particularly implies that it was unable to assess
the review processs duration for rejected articles. Neither could it analyze articles that are
currently still under review.
Second, the analysis does not include article type as a feature of analysis. Some article types,
including letters to the editor, perspectives, or commentaries, might undergo a different kind of
peer reviewthey might, for instance, only be reviewed by the editor, rather than by external
reviewers. A potential difference in distribution of pre- and postcrisis articles over the various
article types might explain some of the variation in the publication processs duration.
Third, our analyses focus on journals publishing relatively many coronavirus-related articles.
Due to a lack of sufficient articles in other, potentially smaller, journals, we were not able to
analyze those journals. As larger journals may more easily attract reviewers and have more
resources, and hence more capacity to shift resources to execute the production stage of publi-
cation, the resulting decrease in publication time might be less strong in smaller journals. At a later
stage, when more coronavirus-related papers appear in other journals, future research could
verify this potential difference.
Last, it should be noted that some of the journal articles assigned to our control group concern
papers related to previous health crises or pandemics, such as the MERS, Ebola or Zika crises.
Despite similar incentives to publish those articles quickly, content related to COVID-19 makes
its way through the publication process much more quickly. Future research could include a
more elaborate comparison not only between pre- and post-COVID-19 eras, but also between
publishing in the COVID-19 and other health-related crises.
In these times of crisis, the rapid dissemination of relevant academic knowledge is of para-
mount importance. Several stakeholders have already warned of a fake news pandemicspread-
ing disinformation and conspiracy theories through social media channels in the absence of
established scientific knowledge (Khatri,Singh,etal.,2020;UNESCO, 2020). To assist
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policymakers and clinical experts, as well as to counter the spread of such disinformation,
researchers and academic journals have a responsibility to share available knowledge quickly.
The fact that medical journals have managed to considerably speed up their publication process
for coronavirus-related content during the current pandemic is therefore laudable. However,some
concerns remain about whether faster dissemination might come at the expense of research
quality.
5. CONCLUSION
Our analysis indicates that the scholarly publishing enterprise has managed to greatly speed up
the dissemination of coronavirus-related research material since the outbreak of the pandemic. In
particular, academic journals managed to decrease the duration of their publication process by
49%, or 57 days on average, which is a statistically relevant difference. Some journals even show
a decrease in publication time of over 80% compared to the prepandemic era. This acceleration
concerns both the stage of review (between submission and acceptance) and the editing stage
(between acceptance and publication). The journals in our sample shortened both stages by 47%
(45 days) and 61% (14 days) respectively. Hence the majority of the decrease in total publication
time is due to speeding up the review process.
We also conclude that the acceleration of the publication process is specific to coronavirus-
related articles. Articles not related to COVID-19 published during the pandemic show very similar
turnaround times as articles published before the pandemic.
In addition to the fast spread of information through journal articles, the number of papers
posted on preprint servers has sharply increased. With only limited data available, such preprints
do not seem to be taken up as journal publications any quicker than they were before the
COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, articles first appearing as preprints do seem to go through
shorter publication processes than articles not appearing as preprints.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author would like to thank the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden
University for establishing the database used for this study and Digital Science for providing
access to the data. The author also thanks Ludo Waltman, Nees Jan van Eck, Marc Luwel,
Thed van Leeuwen, and the members of the Institute for Science in Societys Research Quality
Team for valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
COMPETING INTERESTS
The author has no competing interests.
FUNDING INFORMATION
No funding has been received for this research.
DATA AVAILABILITY
The data analyzed for this research are available via https://github.com/CWTSLeiden/
cwts_covid.
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... Open access logo and text by PLoS, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. months after the outbreak of the virus, makes us consider that not only have researchers been working with extremely high productivity but also that the editorial processes have been profoundly modified (3), speeding these up with the help of technological advances and publishing in preprint or ahead-ofprint versions (6). ...
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