Luisa MASSARANI, National Institute of Public Communication of Science and Technology, Brazil
Luiz NEVES, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil
The COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of studies published on preprint platforms. Websites like medRxiv and bioRxiv enable researchers to publish their manuscripts without having gone through the peer review process, that is, without the study being evaluated by other scientists. By February 10, 2021, these two platforms had already published 13,108 articles on the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. On the one hand, preprints contribute to share data fast in an attempt to understand and contain a disease that spreads quickly; on the other hand, there is concern about the ethical and methodological rigor and the correct interpretation of results. This concern increases when studies of this nature become part of the media agenda. In order to verify how preprints were inserted into the public debate through the media, our study analyzed 76 articles published from January to July 2020 by three newspapers (The New York Times – US; The Guardian – UK; Folha de São Paulo – Brazil), having as topic studies on COVID-19 published on preprint platforms. These countries were selected because they were marked by controversial government administrations regarding the pandemic. The results showed that the newspapers provided an occasional explanation of how the process of publishing research works, and the implications of a study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. The analysis also revealed how the criteria for newsworthy stories in the newspapers were guided by the anxiety resulting from the pandemic: the search for treatment (drug trials) and the identification of antibodies against the virus in the population (seroprevalence). In addition, some of the stories untied the study from its sources, either in relation to the institution or authorship, or when the newspaper did not directly interview the researchers in charge of the study. Although this was "compensated" by consulting secondary sources, the data demonstrated the limitations of a science coverage that, albeit fast, may had become incomplete and displaced from the context in which it was produced. The study led us to reflect on the challenges and weaknesses of covering fast science and the need to broaden the public’s understanding of the methods and processes of science itself, enabling them to recognize and its flaws and to monitor its progress.