Scientific progress and the COVID-19 pandemic

By Dave Hora

The COVID-19 crisis presents a truly global challenge. As borders close, researchers are working together to understand the scope and trajectory of the pandemic, identify measures to prevent virus transmission, model the virus and drug interactions, develop patient treatment and therapies, create a vaccine… the list goes on.

This challenge is enormous, and at ResearchGate we are acutely aware of two aspects. First, societal measures for virus prevention create new constraints in actually carrying out work. Second, the scale and urgency of this issue exacerbate existing problems in our infrastructure of scientific collaboration. We’d like to share some of what we’re learning as we work with the scientific community during these times.

Locked down and working from 顺心彩票

Our working environment has changed. In fact, 90% of scientists are now working from 顺心彩票. In most countries we surveyed, more than half of the researchers said they have been “very” or “extremely” affected by COVID-19.

How affected are scientists worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic

Many are unable to continue carrying out their previous work. Some are now responsible for supporting their children while daycares and schools are shut down. Others have to support family members through trying times of illness and uncertainty. While we rush to address the challenge at hand, we remember that this is not a “normal” time to be doing our work. We are all learning how to be resilient: to balance the real personal challenges that this current crisis creates with the needs of carrying out work.
“Timely communications with collaborators in multiple countries is essential but remains partially disrupted by the current changes to people's daily routines around the world.”

—Professor in Applied Computational Sciences / United States

Researchers everywhere are working from 顺心彩票. Many institutional systems, however, grant access to subscription services based on university IP ranges, so scientific researchers do not have access to the information and publications they traditionally work with. We launched a small survey and found over 25% of researchers are now having difficulty accessing the scientific content they would normally be able to reach—even as they are likely to spend more time now than ever on searching for scientific literature.

Changes in how scientists spend their time.

The COVID-19 crisis is disrupting the way individual researchers work.

For more, see a quick summary of the broader changes in scientific activity in the report Coronavirus impact on scientific research activity. To dive deeper into the implications of this data, including its longer-term impact on scientific output, watch our webinar with team members Darren and Abigail. They unpack the numbers and hypothesize about the future of research activity, in a post-coronavirus world.

Challenges in global collaboration and progress

Right now, every phase of a collaborative scientific process is under pressure. We are facing an event that creates new challenges and also highlights existing constraints which have not previously been limiting factors to our work. We need to address these challenges to make progress in the short term, and also look ahead at more robust solutions to the underlying problems.
“I have a lot of potentially useful information which could help alleviate / combat the pandemic, but lack a robust international scientific / medical body [to] appraise the value of this information… There is a serious need for a body to which scientists like me can immediately contribute.”

—Senior Lecturer in Physiology / Ireland

As we conduct research with our members working on a response to COVID-19, launch surveys to the platform, and receive feedback on the COVID-19 research community hosted on ResearchGate, we are gaining a clearer picture of the challenges facing the scientific community.

We asked life scientists on our platform, "For you, what's the hardest part about doing [your COVID-19-related work] right now?" Even just a few of the responses help highlight the current landscape:

  • “The hardest part is that available data are not reliable, due to the absence of symptoms in many patients. The real number of infected people is much more than the confirmed one.”

  • “Getting access to relevant and topical literature that has been peer reviewed for quality.”

  • “After successful designing, the vaccine needs to be tested in mice. This is the difficult part, because in Bangladesh only one Biosafety Level 3 laboratory is available.”

  • “I find it difficult to find groups to which I can offer my competencies to apply for grants.”

  • “Publicizing; getting this information to the right people; connecting with those in a position to use it.”

Here are short summaries of specific challenges we’ve identified through our work with the larger community. We are attempting to support researchers with some of these challenges via a COVID-19 research community. Other challenges we list here to increase awareness and hope you all may be able to contribute, and share with us how we can support researchers and amplify their efforts.

Offering help and expertise to others who need it

Researchers in many disciplines have the type of expertise and resources to support efforts against COVID-19. But only a small subset of our community is directly working on the effort. It’s not easy to reconfigure an existing line of research to focus on COVID-19, but these researchers want to help: they just don’t know how yet, nor how to connect with the qualified researchers who could use their expertise and capabilities.

Finding and creating collaborations for grant applications

Here’s a common example: bioinformatics researchers are conducting in silico (computationally modelled) studies of the virus protein structure and various compounds and molecules that interact with it in order to find effective drug treatments, both for existing drugs and novel drug compounds. But they don’t have the laboratory capabilities to synthesize and test those molecules in vitro or in vivo, which is extremely expensive work. These researchers need to identify a viable testing pipeline with other collaborators, and then secure funding for their joint efforts to move from digital to physical application. And now, the most common means of finding collaborators — through existing personal networks and industry conferences — are no longer sufficient.

Finding important research and staying up to date in my field of inquiry

In each area of the work—virology, immunology, epidemiology, clinical treatment, bioinformatics —there is a frenetic focus on this topic. A surge of information makes it increasingly difficult to understand which information is important and which signals one should pay attention to. A number of platforms host this content, and many others are surfacing it. Researchers across the board are facing the challenge of how to find what is relevant and impact for their work among all this scientific content. As noted above, we also saw that over 25% of researchers working from 顺心彩票 have issues accessing the publication content they’re trying to read.

Getting my research reviewed and published?

The pipeline for peer review is overloaded. This is the crucial mechanism that helps scientists contribute to and build from an accepted edifice of knowledge. It takes dedicated time and attention to evaluate the quality of specific research outcomes, and more than ever, more research around the COVID-19 topic requires this attention. We’ve spoken to researchers whose preprints are not being accepted by preprint journals. We’ve met (virtually) with researchers in Nigeria who feel their status as a low-income country creates barriers to enter conversations with publishers regarding their findings. Researchers around the globe are generating new and useful knowledge without a clear means to push their work into the larger discourse.

Sharing my research and data to the relevant audience

The other side of “Finding relevant literature and staying up to date” is the work of sharing research and data to those who will use it. Given the proliferation of work on this topic, researchers don’t have a clear means of ensuring their potentially useful information can get to the people who can and will use it to continue their research. It’s an especially interesting problem with negative results: where can researchers contribute to a body of knowledge around everything we’ve tried that isn’t a productive solution? In many fields of inquiry, the data is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. We see researchers taking a number of approaches to crowdsource and centralize the most important data for their field of work, but it’s still occurring in ad-hoc and one-off instances all around.

Finding reliable and community-accepted data to work with

Researchers modeling transmission and impact of the virus and the disease don’t have quality data to work with, and cannot get it yet: those data are dependent on widespread testing and reliable reporting of the presence of the virus and status of patients with the disease. In other areas, the population of interest is too small: we spoke with a surgeon performing lifesaving operations on patients with the COVID-19 illness, and he doesn’t have a reliable set of case data to determine the additional actions required to protect his patients, as well as himself and his team. Researchers around the world modeling virus-drug interactions are working on agreed upon models of the virus protein and receptor structures, but don’t have clear access to the outcomes of clinical trial data that may obviate their entire line of inquiry.

Building a clear and coherent story on our state of understanding

Finally, for the researchers heads down in the work, there is the meta challenge of understanding and framing the larger arc of progress. We’ve spoken with researchers who are distressed by the fragmentation and mixed messaging within their field, and in the larger global bodies that represent their work. It’s an interesting challenge, and we believe it can only be addressed by emergent bottom-up consensus as multifaceted streams of conversation begin to converge. It will also require a layer of interpretation and translation between the concrete scientific activities underway and the implications of their progress in our larger global efforts to combat this pandemic and its effects.

We raise these challenges, but we shouldn’t overlook the successes researchers are having with them and despite them. Ours is a highly motivated and capable global community. We are making progress, and scientists everywhere are contributing.??

Sample, briefly, some of the ongoing work: volunteer scientists are creating crowdsourcing collaboration platforms; there is a new and ongoing discourse and information sharing through Twitter; publishers are looking to accelerate relevant pre-print review are opening access to COVID-19 content; funding bodies are opening new grant lines to support research on the current outbreak and future prevention. And so much more.?

We are coming closer together and developing a new resilience under immense pressure. Slowly, inevitably, and with an increasing rate of progress, we are understanding the SARS-nCoV-2 virus: its structure, its transmission, its interactions and avenues for antiviral treatments and vaccines. We are gaining a clearer picture of the societal and personal health impacts of the COVID-19 illness. We are getting closer to agreed upon societal policies and practices to reduce the spread of the virus and reduce impact on day-to-day life. We are finding new and better ways to test for and treat the illness.?

This does not diminish the cost we have all paid so far, and will continue to pay, because of the global pandemic. There's still so much work to be done, and the challenges are real. Nonetheless, we move forward, we make progress. We hope you’ll join in the conversation with your peers: please join us in our COVID-19 research community, where community members and volunteer moderators are contributing to an up-to-date resource for all areas of scientific research. If you’re a senior researcher and able to help curate the conversation, please consider applying to join us as a moderator.

Thank you, everyone, for all of your work in these difficult times. Please, keep it up, and let us know how we can help.