Explaining Scientific Research Communication in the Age of COVID-19

word cloud image with collaboration peer review experts and related terms

Please welcome Dr. Melanie Harvey as the newest member of the ChemEd X Two-Year College (TYC) crew of lead contributors. Melanie is a Chemistry Professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS where she primarily teaches allied health chemistry courses and is part of an interdisciplinary research project with the microbiology faculty. In addition, Melanie has developed a course-based undergraduate research experience for one of her courses. Outside her professional work life, Melanie is also a ceramic artist with an active practice creating and selling pottery online, at several art galleries in Kansas, and at various art fairs throughout the year. Multitalented, she also sings, plays guitar, and lives with her family of musicians. Scott Donnelly, ChemEd X TYC editor. 

Historically, science has been cast aside whenever the consensus of the scientific community or the theories developed by a preponderance of evidence at the time are at odds with the beliefs, customs, or lifestyle of groups in powerful positions. This is nothing new; however, now we live in a time where it seems that anyone can say anything on social media, and it becomes true to those that want to hear it. The scientific community became so concerned about the misrepresentation of and disregard for scientific knowledge in recent years that a "March for Science" was organized in 2017 with rallies and marches held around the world each year since. It must be serious if scientists are leaving their labs and taking to the streets to protest.

After the pandemic hit early 2020, the scientific community immediately jumped into action around the world to understand this new virus to help prevent further spread and to develop treatments and vaccines as quickly as possible. In the early weeks, the information we were being told seemed to change daily. There was seemingly conflicting information given to citizens by groups that were trying to communicate the best information available in a rapidly changing situation. I remember travelling with my son for college auditions to New York City in the early days of the pandemic and riding subways and attending jazz shows feeling confident that if we washed our hands well and did not touch our faces, we would not get COVID-19. No one was wearing masks yet, but everyone was sanitizing every surface, and the stores were sold out of hand sanitizer Lysol and antibacterial wipes too. I laugh at this now because we have since completely changed our approach and have learned that mask-wearing and social distancing are the two most important things for preventing the spread of this virus.

After seeing complaints on social media that this ever-changing information and advice was confusing and frustrating people who no longer trusted the information they were being told, I realized it is because they are not scientists and do not realize how scientific research actually works. They have not personally had the experience of collecting more data only to find they were interpreting their original data incorrectly, or that it was simply giving an incomplete picture of what was happening. In the rush to share anything helpful related to COVID-19, there were papers shared and published online prior to peer review. Some of the usual steps taken were waived to expedite the sharing of information with the rest of the world. Because of this haste, there have been a significant number of retractions and corrections made once additional data were collected.

There are several items I wanted to discuss with my students related to scientific research. Because we were completely remote and my courses were asynchronous, I assigned a video to watch and gave my students three questions to answer in a discussion board setting. The video is an excellent one that was created by Dr. Elizabeth Leininger, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at New College of Florida. Click to watch the video entitled Scientific Inquiry and Communication in the Age of COVID-19. In summary, the video describes the ways scientific information is communicated, how those pathways usually function and how they were altered by the pandemic. My questions were not directly answered by the video and I was not sure how students would respond. I wanted students to think about some key items that are not well understood but impact the reputation of science and scientists. The key items are:

1. What makes someone an expert? 

2. What is the purpose of peer review and who are the "peers"? 

3. How can the scientific community balance the immediate need for new information with the need for reliable information? 

I teach two different courses that fall under the allied health chemistry/GOB/nonmajor organic and biochemistry categories at JCCC. My students range from being pre-nursing to students with BSNs applying to a CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) program. I had the privilege of having a number of students that were also front-line healthcare workers in local hospitals working with COVID-19 ICU patients directly. That became an important part of their contributions to the discussions.

What makes someone an expert? For this question some students simply looked to Google or gave me a definition of "expert" from a dictionary. Other students realized that no one was an expert on COVID-19 exactly when it first hit. One student described it as starting from scratch. There were students that realized that some people were experts in related things, but from their perspective as health care workers, the closest things we had to experts in the hospitals were the people on the front-line that had worked directly with the most COVID-19 patients up to that point. At that point, we had not talked about experts in terms of the research for the development of a vaccine. "Expert" became a somewhat relative term in our discussions, but it was clear from student comments that it involves formal education, a significant amount of time, and first-hand and successful experience. The students also agreed that an expert should have the respect of other experts and should know how to properly conduct experiments/collect meaningful data in their field.

What is the purpose of peer review and who are the "peers"? For this question, students commented that science is a collaborative process. They generally indicated they believed that peer review helps prevent bias in the interpretation of results. The students seemed to agree that peer review makes the paper better because of the feedback and scrutiny from peers.

How can the scientific community balance the immediate need for new information with the need for reliable information? Students were conflicted on this question, but most felt inaccurate findings published quickly hurt the community and they believed it would be better to wait for the more reliable peer-reviewed information. Students expressed that consideration should be given to how low or high the risk of harm of using the information would be before deciding to share it or not share it without sufficient review.

For an additional article about the dangers of preprints and problems of research papers citing preprints or retracted papers, the following article would also be a great read for students: Piller, Charles. "Disgraced COVID-19 studies are still routinely cited" Science, 2021, 371, 331-332.

For online discussions, I highly recommend a discussion board that allows them to view and respond to others only after they have posted once. I also recommend not forming smaller groups but allowing the entire class to view the comments. Because each student's experiences are so varied, there may be one student that posts something you really want the entire class to read. Based on the student responses and their enthusiastic participation, it was clear to me that students were excited to participate in this discussion. However we choose to engage our students on the nature of science, I think we have an obligation to help them understand the processes involved in the communication of scientific research results.