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The impact of the pandemic on research quality and science communication

The coronavirus pandemic affects all parts of society regardless of factors such as age, gender or social status. Much is still uncertain about SARS-CoV-2, the disease COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic on the economy and society. As a result, the attention currently devoted to research is immense. Hopes are high that soon results will be available that are applicable in practice immediately. Science is trying to meet the demand and is working at an enormous speed. Consequently, the world is flooded daily with a multitude of new scientific publications. The questions that arise are to what extent this speed is at the expense of good scientific practice, how good science communication can help overcome the crisis and what lessons can be learned from the current situation for the science system.

Wissenschaftskommunikation im Kontext

                                                                                                      Graph: D. A. Thal

In science, it is usually a long way from the first hypothesis to the first publication of results. After research questions have been formulated in small steps, the appropriate studies are planned, preliminary investigations are carried out, adjustments are made and methods are optimised before the study/experiment can be carried out and the results statistically evaluated. Finally, the data is collected, discussed within the  professional community and sent to a scientific journal. Here, the work is once again subjected to review by independent experts. In this so-called "peer review" procedure, improvements are often requested. The corrected work can then be submitted for review again and, in the best-case scenario, is then published .This process can drag on for months.

The quality standards for research work should always be high in order to build stable foundations for political and social decisions and to prevent valuable resources from flowing into the wrong channels. In addition, trust in science can be permanently damaged by inaccurate studies. In an article in Science, the authors warn against using the urgency of research results at the expense of quality. 


Good scientific practice

The rules of good scientific practice are an important quality assurance measure. The "Ombudsman for Science", a body set up by the German Research Foundation (DFG), provides confidential advice on questions of good scientific practice. "Good scientific practice is first and foremost about honesty, fairness and transparency in scientific cooperation," explains Dr. Czesnick, head of the committee's office (complete interview with Dr. Czesnick). Germany is not the only country with such guidelines for science. "There are international guidelines on scientific integrity that the scientific community - at different levels - has agreed on. For example, there is the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (published by ALLEA, 2017).  Numerous countries have formulated national rules on good scientific practice that take into account the circumstances of the scientific landscape of the respective country. The fact that the structures for scientific integrity, such as the responsibilities of national and local "Research Integrity Offices", vary from country to country can be seen, for example, in a European comparison of the members of the ENRIO network (the European Network of Research Integrity Offices,", explains Dr. Czesnick. Nonetheless, scientists all over the world work on the basis of internationally recognised guidelines. 


Quality standards particularly important in the pandemic

But in the current pandemic, politics and society are demanding quick results. The pressure on science is high and has accelerated processes at all levels. However, this pressure does not absolve science of the need to meet its own quality standards. "The rules of scientific integrity should, of course, also be respected in times of crisis - the ENRIO network already called for "research integrity" to be maintained during the pandemic in a statement at European level in April 2020. The DFG has also pointed out the importance of scientific quality standards, especially during the pandemic," said Dr. Czesnick. "This means that a critical and honest examination of our own data and results as well as of the results and conclusions of colleagues in science should continue. We have been able to observe such critical discourses in recent months, as well as - unfortunately - the withdrawal of contributions in which inconsistencies were noticed by colleagues. Whether certain factors were overlooked, for example, due to particular haste, can rarely be determined in retrospect. We suspect that the urgent need for rapid research results also led to oversights or errors, which were then immediately uncovered by the scientific community.” But of course such mistakes are quickly picked up by the media.

In science, it is part of the publication process that papers are revised on the basis of constructive criticism from reviewers before they are finally published. In fact, the review process and the discourse within the scientific community are important components of the quality assurance process. Ms. Czesnick is optimistic that these control mechanisms will also work in the pandemic: "Even in the pandemic, the already established self-correction mechanisms of science will work. The scientific community recognises weaknesses and errors in research approaches during peer reviews, but also after the publication of results - regardless of whether publications are preprints or postprints". 


Merging of internal and external science communication

Preprints are data that are published prior to peer review by independent peers. This makes the data more readily available to specialist colleagues, but also to the general public. And this is exactly where a problem can arise. "Scientists today always stand with one foot in the public eye. When virologists upload results to a preprint server - which is the starting signal for an inner-scientific discussion - this can be noticed, taken up, and discussed by journalism and the public," explains Prof. Leßmöllmann, Professor of Science Communication (complete interview with Prof. Leßmöllmann). "This means that inner-scientific communication on digital platforms, or teaching uploaded to YouTube, etc. - very quickly end up in external science communication. The spheres are no longer strictly separated. And so an everyday internal discourse in science can quickly be publicly discussed or even criticized, which can be quite constructive and also interesting for the researchers involved. But it can also be manipulatively reinterpreted into a kind of "science mud wrestling", which is counterproductive for science communication". 


Explaining how research works

Knowledge acquisition is a dynamic process, with new research findings constantly changing the overall picture. In addition, "science" is extremely multifaceted and therefore also polyphonic. This characteristic stands in contrast to the wishes of society and politics, as statements by the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet in the ARD talk show "Anne Will" showed. Mr. Laschet criticized there that virologists would "change their mind every few days". In his opinion, the virologists would have to make clear statements once in a while. Unfortunately science does not work that way. "Science is not a fortune-telling box into which you put a coin and the answer comes out at the bottom. Rather, it is a very complex structure from which, over time, some results can be extracted that can then be applied in practise," says Prof. Leßmöllmann.

To explain how research works is also an important goal of science communication: "[it] must be clear that science produces a great deal of unknowns or uncertainty, that is its job. It is not a fact machine, but produces knowledge that can be shaped into facts over a long period of testing, which can then be found in textbooks. In times of scientific uncertainty - keyword corona - science often cannot provide the hard facts that e.g. politics wants. Understanding, accepting and above all dealing with this is a very important subject, but also a goal of science communication. It is therefore not only a matter of explaining in an understandable way what a virus is. It is about much more.It is about a dialogue with all potential social addressees about how science works and how it becomes a good basis for orientation knowledge in this complex world". 


Science and politics

However, the difference between the systems is not an obstacle to constructive cooperation between science, society and politics, says Prof. Leßmöllmann: "Instead of complaining about it, we should take the offensive, discuss the scientific results and train our conclusion and decision-making muscles - both in everyday life and in politics - instead of complaining that science does not provide facts.

However, it is important that research can continue to act independently of political views. "[...] research must be free to produce results that may conflict with [a] political direction. The credibility of science can suffer if it acts in a way that is guided by political interests," said Prof. Leßmöllmann. The "Heinsberg Study" showed what happens when science subordinates itself to the wishes of politics. The first interim results of the study were unusually announced in a media-effective manner at a press conference before the study was completed and was used by politicians as a basis for their decisions. From a scientific point of view, however, the publication of unfinished work makes no sense, especially if it is done without the underlying data. 


Good science communication as the key

Despite all the hurdles that science communication brings with it, it is clear that science will continue to fulfil its democratic duty to present new data and findings to the public - especially since research is largely financed by public funds.  This is especially true in times of crisis. At this point it is important to note that, although the quality of research and communication suffers in some places from the high speed, the SARS-CoV-2 research produced so far is immense. Within a very short period of time, the new pathogen was identified and a diagnostic system was established. Several vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19 are currently undergoing clinical trials. Considering the short time available, these are enormous achievements.

In order to be able to build on these successes, it is still essential that the rules of good scientific practice are respected and that adequate scientific communication is carried out in exchange with the diverse public groups.

"How important and helpful it can be for researchers to have skills in science communication is particularly evident during the pandemic," said Dr. Czesnick. In order to further develop these skills, it would be helpful to "significantly improve" the training of young scientists, says Prof. Leßmöllmann. 


Lessons from the pandemic

Even before the pandemic, "problematic aspects of the science system" already existed, as Dr. Czesnick discusses. However, some of these aspects came into focus, with the pandemic acting as a magnifying glass . Possible lessons from the pandemic could therefore also help to further optimise the science system in general. In addition to maintaining uniform quality standards and raising awareness among scientists of the importance of good science communication, this also involves strengthening international interdisciplinary cooperation, establishing sustainable structures in science that can be quickly activated in times of crisis, and rethinking the scientific publication system (free availability of scientific papers, acceleration of scientific exchange).


In the May 2020 Science Barometer in Germany, 66 percent of participants stated that they had confidence in science and research (Fig. 1). This high level of public trust in science shows that much is already going well and correctly in research and science communication. It gives cause for optimism that black sheep, even in times of increased public attention, cannot undermine the integrity of research and that, in the end, good scientific practice will hopefully generate solid data as a basis for solving society's problems.

Science Barometer GermanyFig. 1: Source: Science Barometer - Science in Dialogue/Cantary, CC BY-ND 4.0; at least 1000 respondents in each case | figures in percent - rounding differences possible; data 2017, 2018, 2019 collected in summer

Text: Dr. Dana A. Thal for the German Research Platform for Zoonoses

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