Is the COVID-19 pandemic bringing out the best in science?

News headlines suggest unprecedented collaboration, abundant sharing and unparalleled openness amongst scientists have emerged as leading trends during the coronavirus pandemic.

In April 2020, the New York Times ran an article with the headline “COVID-19 changed how the world does science, together”, while Nature News said “Tens of thousands of scientists are redeploying to fight coronavirus”.

In similar vein, Marshall Shepherd in Forbes commented on the refreshing return of trust in science and a public poll administered by YouGov in the United States reported that citizens now show high levels of trust in scientists and doctors to lead them through the crisis.

These accolades appear to form a pattern and trends have started to emerge about how the scientific community is responding to the coronavirus pandemic and what the modus operandi is among scientists and the scientific community as they engage in the fight against COVID-19.

One of the most striking tendencies has been the unprecedented spurt in global research collaboration – a phenomenon which has so far allowed for more than 200 clinical trials to be launched within only a few months of the outbreak of COVID-19. The scientific world’s response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, when scientists and doctors locked arms to combat the disease, is the only other feat of global collaboration that it is at all comparable, according to the New York Times, but the speed of information-sharing today is in another league.

The search for a vaccine

The momentous drive to discover a vaccine is another trend. Never before, it is suggested, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.

Some scientists have cautioned about the speed and desirability of scientists administering clinical trials at an early stage which preclude animal testing and pose a risk for vaccine enhancement.

But there have been no insinuations of personal or corporate gain on the part of scientists in doing so, as have occurred in the past. The sheer scope, urgency and threat of the pandemic seem to have quashed personal ambitions in favour of a more altruistic ideal of finding a cure.

Another remarkable manifestation of science during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the unprecedented rate of publication, which illustrates an eagerness to share information unreservedly and contribute to the scientific record. Barely a month after the outbreak, 153 papers on COVID-19 involving 675 researchers worldwide had already been published. It took a year and a half for the same number of papers to be published during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Sharing data

With regard to the risks of “speed science”, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal, made reassurances that “surge capacity” has been instituted to deal with the extraordinary daily influx of manuscripts while simultaneously ensuring quality.

Other journals too have added additional volunteer reviewers and extra resources to help speed up peer-review and accelerate publication while safeguarding key activities such as plagiarism inspection, reference and citation checking, getting the data and ensuring reproducibility remains in place.

There has also been an increasing tendency for scientists to openly share data. This trend took off right away, as early as 11 January, with the open publishing of the draft genome of the novel coronavirus which led to a quick association with the SARS virus and the creation of a phylogenetic tree, which was announced on Twitter.

Along the same lines, Elsevier has consistently contributed towards the efforts to combat the pandemic. One way has been through making available extensive collections of material relevant to the outbreak free of charge for the duration of the outbreak. This is being done through the Novel Coronavirus Information Center which includes material from The Lancet and Cell Press, clinical information and FAQs on symptoms and webinars.

Elsevier is also joining hands with other publishers, funders and scientific societies from across the globe in a vow to immediately share findings with the World Health Organization before publication and ensure that research data is available.

All the while, every effort has been made to safeguard science through trusted processes of peer-review, anti-plagiarism checking and reproducibility processes.

Social media: a double-edged sword

A further trend is the prominence of social media as a mainstream scholarly communication medium to make findings available quickly.

The first record of social media communication in relation to COVID-19 was a tweet by Edward Holmes, a virologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, announcing the availability of what he referred to as an “initial” sequence of the virus.

Although this use of social media is generally regarded as a positive phenomenon, some scholars have their doubts because of its lack of quality control which they say potentially poses a threat to public trust in science.

Other problems associated with social media relate to its propensity to spread scientific misinformation and negatively influence public opinion about science-related topics, such as that experienced with vaccination and climate change.

Among other trends, a renewed allegiance to science has been particularly welcomed. As the world finds itself embattled in the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes have turned towards science to provide guidance, assurance and remedies. The message that “it is only through high-quality science, transmitted in trusted sources” that the current biomedical war can be won has become a resounding one.

This growing positive sentiment towards science is all the more refreshing against the all too recent pandemic of distrust in science and warnings that science itself was under attack; under-financed; sidelined by policy-makers; and undervalued as a result of pervasive availability of information and data.

The matter of distrust in science had also permeated scholarly literature owing to concern about questionable research practices and has been fuelled by the unintended consequences that resulted from competitive funding, incentivisation and quantitative performance measuring of science.

The values of science

Robert K Merton, the celebrated guru on science ethics would salute today’s scientists and how they show the spirit of “CUDOS” – a term he believed summarised the distinguishing values of science. He coined CUDOS as the fitting acronym for “Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness and Organised Scepticism”.

For Merton, ‘communalism’ signified the sharing of knowledge and data; the publishing of results and the free access to knowledge to advance science. He regarded ‘universalism’ as science’s imperviousness to personal or social attributes such as race, nationality, religion, class or status. He saw ‘disinterestedness’ as the drive to discover a vaccine without consideration of personal ambition and competition, and ‘organised scepticism’ could be seen in the insistence on validation of findings through peer-review.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is in its early stages and it is impossible to be conclusive about how it has affected science. But, from the perspective of a quick health check on the image and ethos of science, the future seems optimistic for science to reclaim its elevated position in society and lead the world into a safer future.

Lucia Schoombee is a research intelligence consultant for Elsevier based in South Africa and is currently enrolled for a masters programme in science and technology at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. The impact of the coronavirus on science was explored as part of a course on the sociology of science immediately after the COVID-19 outbreak.