Most scientific journals subject the studies they receive to a peer-review process prior to publication. But what exactly does it consist of? OR why is peer review important?
Since then, numerous scientific studies have been published dedicated to getting to know it a little better, in order to find the best methods to combat it: its genome, its symptoms, its way of infecting cells, its origin, the way it affects to children… There are many issues that have been addressed about this new global threat. As with some clinical trials, the bureaucracy required to carry them out, and also to publish them, has sped up dramatically, resulting in a ton of interesting information on the subject. But we must be careful with what we consider valid and what is not.
These days, many media outlets have published information on preprints, or what are the same, studies without peer review. This is a well-known topic in science and in research in general, but one that can escape the reader. However, it is still important, as it is very necessary data when taking into account the data released by this work. Now, what exactly do these concepts refer to?
Review is Important
When a researcher or a team of them finish a study, it is time to send it to one or more journals for publication.
At first, the “manuscript” is evaluated by the editor-in-chief or an associate editor, who will carry out the first analysis to verify basic data, such as that the subject, corresponds to that of the journal in question or that the format is appropriate.
If you consider that any of these points is not correct, it could be rejected directly. If not, go through the process known as peer review. In it, one or more experts on the subject of the study analyze its content in a much more exhaustive way.
At this point, a good format is not enough. The development must be adequate and solid, the content rigorous and the correct methodology. In addition, the importance and originality of the findings obtained are also taken into account. A study on something very new is not the same as one that does not add anything new to the field of research it deals with.
Although this is not always the case, peer review is usually carried out through a process known as “double-blind”. This means that the reviewers do not know at any time who the authors of the study are and, in turn, they do not have information about the person or persons in charge of reviewing their work.
Once they have analyzed the study, three things can happen: they reject it directly, they accept it without corrections or they propose corrections for one or more subsequent revisions. If accepted, the latter is the most common, as it is rarely allowed unchanged for publication.
The level of demand depends a lot on the magazine in question. There are some more lax than others, but precisely for that reason the most prestigious are those in which it is more difficult to publish. This is the case, for example, of media such as Nature, in which a very low percentage of the manuscripts received is published.
On the other hand, there is the case of open journals, such as PLOS One. In these, only a very superficial analysis is made, in which it is verified that there are no major flaws or that a good methodology has been developed. Once this has been evaluated, it is published openly, so that it is the readers, many of them experts in the field, who act as reviewers.
Finally, and this is where the studies on the coronavirus come into play, there is the case of preprints, published in media such as arxiv.org. In this case, these are studies that have been submitted for review; but that, while the whole process is carried out, they are published with an intention similar to that of open magazines.
A peer-review process can be very long. In fact, if it requires several revisions it can last even years. When it comes to a topic as important as COVID-19, it is important that all the information that is available is available so that epidemiologists, health professionals and researchers working in search of treatments or vaccines can study it. However, they must always do so without forgetting that it is work without review and that, as such, the information is not yet sufficiently verified.
For this reason, it is also important that those media that decide to resort to a study of this type indicate it to the reader if possible since this will help them to know that the information cannot be taken as definitive. In reality, in a matter like a coronavirus, where what we know is continually changing, even the best-reviewed study should not be taken as such.
The knowledge it gives us evolves and undergoes changes, as new pieces are placed. So it is not surprising that both the data and the measurements related to SARS-CoV-2 change so much and so quickly. It is not about lies, but that we are getting better acquainted with the coronavirus. That is why you have to know when to exercise caution.