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Table of Contents
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 143-145

Non-COVID-19 research and publications must never be at the mercy of COVID-19 research

1 Department of Medicine, University Sleep Disorders Center, College of Medicine, King Saud University; The Strategic Technologies Program of the National Plan for Sciences and Technology and Innovation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
2 College of Medicine and Medical Sciences, Arabian Gulf University, Manama; Ministry of Health, Kingdom of Bahrain
3 Department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, College of Health Sciences/Research Institute of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Sharjah, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Date of Submission07-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance10-Jun-2020
Date of Web Publication02-Jul-2020

Correspondence Address:
Ahmed S BaHammam
Department of Medicine, Sleep Disorders Center, College of Medicine, King Saud University, Box 225503, Riyadh 11324
Saudi Arabia
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/JNSM.JNSM_60_20

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How to cite this article:
BaHammam AS, Jahrami H, Faris MA. Non-COVID-19 research and publications must never be at the mercy of COVID-19 research. J Nat Sci Med 2020;3:143-5

How to cite this URL:
BaHammam AS, Jahrami H, Faris MA. Non-COVID-19 research and publications must never be at the mercy of COVID-19 research. J Nat Sci Med [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Jan 28];3:143-5. Available from: https://www.jnsmonline.org/text.asp?2020/3/3/143/288827

“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”

– Stephen Covey

The research community is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic at light speed. Searching for the keywords “COVID-19” or “SARS-COV-2” in PubMed (MEDLINE and PMC) at the time of writing this paper revealed 28,000 publications, and the number reduced to 20,000 after removing duplicates. Since January 2020, a similar search in Google Scholar identified 136,000 publications. This translates to approximately 6000 published papers every week (until June 4, 2020, or week 23, 2020), with the vast amount of work being only tangentially related to COVID-19. The number of COVID-19 publications has been reported to double every 20 days.[1]

The strain on editors, reviewers, and publishers to process and timely publish articles related to COVID-19 can have an impact on the processing and publication of non-COVID-19 studies. In this Editorial, we discuss the growth in COVID-19 literature and the utilization of big data, artificial intelligence, and deep learning modules, to estimate the potential impact of COVID-19 publications on the prospect of non-COVID-19 research and publications coming from other healthcare specialties and disciplines.

For the sake of this analysis, we used the CORD-19: A COVID-19 Open Research Dataset,[2] which provides comprehensive metadata of coronavirus and COVID-19 articles indexed in PubMed/MEDLINE, Microsoft Academic, and the World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 databases.[3] An analysis of the metadata of articles available in the CORD-19 by indexing source provides an estimate that 20,000 publications out of the 140,000 publications (approximately 14%) are nonhealthcare-related articles (e.g., education or politics).

Interestingly to report, of the 140,000 papers published on the topic of COVID-19, only 2600 (approximately 2%) were clinical studies that involved COVID-19 patients. If we opt to recalculate the proportion of the patient-related COVID-19 papers (n = 2600) to the pooled aggregate number of medical research literature pertaining to COVID-19 (n = 20,000), we estimate that at best, approximately 13% are genuinely significant to the medical knowledge of COVID-19 (4% related to the epidemiology of COVID-19, 2% to its treatment, and 7% to outcome/death).

Epidemiological papers on COVID-19 cases accounted for 800 papers out of 20,000 (4%), and they were mainly concerned with the symptoms of the disease, the medical comorbidities, and the severity of the symptoms. Around 450 studies (2%) were concerned with experimental treatments, mainly hydroxychloroquine sulfate, chloroquine, ribavirin, interferon, and ritonavir. Mortality reports accounted for more than 1400 entries (approximately 7%). The top popular science journals such as Nature and Science each published around 350 papers (2%), while other leading medical journals published between 300 and 800 papers, with BMJ, Lancet, JAMA, and Critical Care Medicine being the most publishing journals in respective orders. Leading scientific publishers such as Elsevier, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Routledge, Sage Publications, and Wiley call for urgent publications on COVID-19 articles and offer priority handling for COVID-19 papers.

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on all aspects of our life, including the production and publication of scientific research. Nonetheless, research priorities and health agendas are set to increase clinical effectiveness, and their continuation is considered vital to improving the ability to make better-informed health decisions.

Globally, many universities and research centers have temporarily suspended their non-COVID-19 research activities, and as a result, many researchers justifiably worry about the effects of these shutdowns on their research and the future of science at large.[4] Since the 3rd week of March 2020, more than 95% of the schools and universities are closed (at some level) around the world as a response to governmental orders to contain the spread of the virus, and this has not improved much till today (June 6, 2020).[5] The Royal Society (UK) published a blog of scientists from across the world sharing their experiences with the effect of lockdown on their research activities.[6]

Another challenge facing researchers during the COVID-19 era is the slow processing and publication of authentic and original non-COVID-19 medical research by journal editors and publishers, which may cause a long-term problem of wasting genuine research in exchange for redundant, imprecise, and duplicated COVID-19 papers. Medicine and medical sciences are evolving, and the delay in the processing and publication time may send a false message of being under-researched and therefore increasing the likelihood that several research teams may unknowingly study the same topic due to the lack of trustful platforms for communication (respected peer-review journals). This issue is likely to escalate in the absence of a clear direction of giving equal priority to COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 health-related research papers. Relying on self-experience, before COVID-19, the average processing time of submitted medical research papers was approximately 60 days from submission to the first decision. Currently, with the increased volume and velocity of the prepared COVID-19-related manuscripts, Editorial office screening time alone can take up to 30 days, with an increased likelihood of upfront rejection of non-COVID-19 papers. This can lengthen the processing time by at least 35%–50%. This estimation is based on the fact that in 2019, approximately 956,000 MEDLINE-indexed articles were published,[7] suggesting that COVID-19 publications in 2020 (in 5 months only, i.e., 140,000 papers) represented approximately 15% of the entire medical literature in the current year so far. Around the globe, healthcare sectors are spending billions to control HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other major communicable and noncommunicable diseases, and without prompt updates of clinical research, progress toward the strategic goals will be limited.[8] Moreover, directing most funding resources toward COVID-19 research has compromised the funding of both well-established researchers and junior researchers in other disciplines.

According to a recent survey of 4800 doctoral students and early-career researchers at the UK universities during the lockdown, only 10% of postdoctoral students and junior researchers on contracts that will conclude this year have been presented additional funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[9] Almost two-thirds of the respondents stated that they were worried not only about their funds but also about their future career plans.[9] The real concern is that the budget constraints due to COVID-19 will not only have a significant impact on the current research projects of these young researchers but are also expected to result in long-term inferences on their future careers.

With the increasing demand of patients' care during COVID-19 time, most editors and peer reviewers became overwhelmed with the vast numbers of submissions and hence have less time to perform proper peer review and proper editorship.[10] The current lack of proper peer review and the rush to publish COVID-19-related papers have resulted in the publication of questionable studies related to COVID-19. In addition, as the peer-review process is usually unpaid work performed in the reviewers' free time, the flood of COVID-19-related papers further lessens the pool of available reviewers, resulting in significant delays in the peer review of non-COVID-19 papers. Further, this situation takes a lot of the time needed by researchers/reviewers to write grants and get involved in new research projects.[10]

The distraction of clinicians, reviewers, and editors from getting involved in new research projects is thought to be more pronounced in women, as women bear much of the load of these extra commitments, which may explain the comparatively low number of female authorships in COIVD-19 papers.[11] It is not known if the production of women in other health disciplines has been affected or not, and this might be an opportunity to research in the future.

A significant slowing in the processing of the submitted papers in non-COVID-19-related health topics has been demonstrated.[12] This delay created frustration among scientists and researchers and not only slowed the delivery of scientific evidence but also indirectly delayed the academic promotion of young academic staff, which is directly linked to the publication of scientific papers.[10] Several papers in leading journals about COVID-19 have recently been retracted, and a large proportion of the published COVID-19 related articles are of questionable quality, which may render the research community at large and the general public skeptical about the genuineness of all medical research.

We strongly recommend maintaining the fund of non-COVID-19 health research and the regular processing of ongoing publications during the outbreak. In 2018, the WHO projected that more than 50% of deaths were attributed to 10 leading causes of death.[13] For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death; however, a brief inspection to the most visited databases MEDLINE and EMBASE revealed that during 2020, less than 2500 papers (of various types) about COPD were published, including 50 papers about COVID-19 in COPD patients.

Tanya Wheway once wrote, “Balance is the key to success in all things.” Today, we are all overwhelmed by COVID-19, and it appears as a medical research “priority” that matters most; however, this Editorial reminds us that in health and medical research, there are many other important topics that currently appear to be ignored.

  References Top

Brainard J. Scientists are drowning in COVID-19 papers. Can new tools keep them afloat? Science 2020. Available from: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/scientists-are-drowning-covid-19-papers-can-new-tools-keep-them-afloat. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 05].  Back to cited text no. 1
Semantic Scholar. Get Started with CORD-19 2020. Available from: https://www.semanticscholar.org/cord19/get-started. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 04].  Back to cited text no. 2
Allen Institute for AI. Sci Sight 2020. Available from: https://scisight.apps.allenai.org/. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 04].  Back to cited text no. 3
Safeguard research in the time of COVID-19. Nat Med 2020;26:443.  Back to cited text no. 4
Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker: Blavatnik School of Government & University of Oxford; 2020. Available from: https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/research-projects/coronavirus-government-response-tracker. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 04].  Back to cited text no. 5
Science in Lockdown: The Effects of COVID-19 on Research and Researchers 2020. Available from: https://royalsociety.org/blog/2020/05/science-in-lockdown-part-one/. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 6
MEDLINE. Citations Added to MEDLINE ® by Fiscal Year 2019. Available from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/bsd/stats/cit_added.html. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 7
Global Burden of Disease Health Financing Collaborator Network. Health sector spending and spending on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and development assistance for health: Progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 3. Lancet 2020;S0140-6736(20)30608-5. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30608-5.  Back to cited text no. 8
Baker S. Most Early Career Academics face Funding Cliff Edge, Survey Suggests; 2020. Available from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/most-early-career-academics-face-funding-cliff-edge-survey-suggests. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 9
Kurth T, Piccininni M, Loder EW, Rohmann JL. Parallel pandemic: The crush of covid-19 publications tests the capacity of scientific publishing. BMJ 2020. Available from: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/05/26/a-parallel-pandemic-the-crush-of-covid-19-publications-tests-the-capacity-of-scientific-publishing/. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 10
Andersen JP, Nielsen MW, Simone NL, Lewiss RE, Jagsi R. Meta-Research: Is Covid-19 Amplifying the Authorship Gender Gap in the Medical Literature? 2020. Available from: https://arxiv.org/abs/2005. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 11
Rogers SK, Hughes M. Routine' DVT and stroke during COVID-19 is a parallel pandemic that will be costly if ignored. J Vasc Surg 2020;S0741-5214(20)31092-2. doi: 10.1016/j.jvs.2020.04.486.  Back to cited text no. 12
World Health Organization. The Top 10 Causes of Death; 2018. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 06].  Back to cited text no. 13


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