At its best, scientific research is a vigorous conversation among scientists. Last June, two members of the Yale School of Medicine faculty—Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), and Joseph Ross, MD, professor of medicine and public health, were among the co-founders of medRxiv (pronounced “med-archive”), which greatly expanded that conversation by inviting researchers in the health sciences to post preprints of their study manuscripts far earlier than before, accelerating other scientists’ access to their findings by weeks and months, or even longer.
Preprints are preliminary versions of research articles that researchers share with each other before they are published in a journal, in order to disseminate study methods and findings among the scientific community and to solicit feedback to help improve the final published article. It is the kind of conversation that commonly occurs at annual scientific conferences, but with this tool the discussions don’t need to wait a year. They can be instant. “It’s put in a position for anyone around the world to be able to see or read,” says Krumholz. “The mere fact of sharing the information, however preliminary, stimulates thinking. It stimulates creativity. It puts people in a mode of ‘what would be next?'"
During the coronavirus emergency, this vehicle for rapid collaboration has become an important asset. As Krumholz, Ross, and BMJ Executive Editor Theodora Bloom, PhD, recently wrote in STAT, an online publication about medicine and scientific discovery, “the advantages of preprints are that scientists can post them rapidly and receive feedback from their peers quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously. They also keep other scientists informed about what their colleagues are doing and build on that work.” A pandemic highlights the need for rapid scientific communications, they wrote. “In an outbreak, research can produce prodigious amounts of information, and scientists around the world want to leverage [the] advances others have made, including learning from successes and failures.”
As Ross explains, knowing which methods do not work is vital. “Negative research is harder to publish. It takes longer. This is a great way to disseminate that work and have the rest of the community learn from it.”
In the system that Yale professors Krumholz and Ross helped devise, there are safeguards to ensure that manuscripts are part of legitimate “scholarly discourse,” as well as evaluate funding disclosures, potential conflicts of interest, and other factors that may diminish their value to science and public health.
Yale is collaborating on this project with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and BMJ, a British publisher of medical journals. It offers the promise that desperately needed solutions to the COVID-19 crisis will arrive more swiftly and be more effective.