As a doctoral student studying toxicology and environmental health, COVID-19 has completely upended my normal routine. Until mid-March I spent most of my time in the lab, but since then, my university has responsibly suspended all nonessential research operations. My fellow students and I are attempting to maintain some sense of normalcy while figuring out our roles as “experts-in-training” during these unprecedented times. Even though we can’t be physically present at our respective institutions and working in our labs, we have the ambition and skills to contribute in other ways. And we are very motivated to help.
Strong science is needed now more than ever. Our global community has pivoted from business as usual. Understanding how COVID-19 works, finding treatments for it and developing a vaccine now occupy our days.
The urgent need to focus on COVID-19 research has led to an outpouring of data. Perhaps more significantly, these data are being released to the scientific community much sooner that they would have been in normal times.
One nontraditional option for sharing research is using preprints. Preprints are not subject to expert review before being publicly available. This can be a major problem because these papers have not been thoroughly vetted, or quality checked, before release.
Traditionally, scientists share their findings with the public by publishing their work in academic journals, but only after an exhaustive peer review process is finished. During peer review, a paper is rigorously scrutinized by experts in the field. This scholarly peer review is crucial; these experts are experienced scientists who have considerable knowledge about the subject matter at hand, and their major job is to make sure that the data and conclusions offered in the research are reliable. Reviewers may request that additional experiments be performed, and depending on the field, it may take anywhere from two to 18 months for a manuscript to be publication-ready after much back-and-forth between the reviewers, authors and journal editors.
In the battle against COVID-19, we know that we need the best science to get society back on track, advise us how to safely reopen our country and ultimately, save lives. Not surprisingly, the traditional process of peer review presents a significant challenge amid a pandemic: it is not a process built for speed, and time is at a premium.
The scientific community thus faces a conundrum. We need both to expand our bandwidth and accelerate peer review while at the same time ensuring that the best science is made available to combat the virus. One way to do this is to unleash the power of students.
My fellow doctoral students and I have the time, drive, knowledge and enthusiasm to dedicate to peer review. In addition, we have the skills to be effective peer reviewers, and can carry out peer reviews in a short time.
Though a lot has changed for me this semester, one part of my schedule that has remained consistent is a class called “Advanced Concepts in Physiology, Toxicology and Molecular Mechanisms.” In this class, we work together to critique scientific research. Classes like this one, often referred to as “journal clubs” are a cornerstone of graduate student curricula. They give us an opportunity to convene with our professors and colleagues to constructively dissect and discuss research papers. Working in groups, we critically evaluate scientific papers, diving deeply into the underlying science, experimental design, statistical approaches, data analysis and the overall contribution of the paper to the field. We take giving this feedback seriously, and after presenting our evaluation of the paper, we submit a review detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each paper and our suggested improvements.
I believe that our experiences as front line laboratory researchers, and our coursework, such as journal clubs, makes us uniquely qualified as peer reviewers. Graduate students pursuing research degrees represent an untapped resource during our current public health crisis. There are over 1.8 million graduate students in the U.S. alone; even if only 1 percent of us were called upon, together we could drastically streamline the peer review process and accelerate the release of reliable science.
We are ready, willing and able to break the bottleneck that traditional peer review has created. All we need is for university leadership and journal editors to support our efforts and help us disseminate our work.
Emily Illingworth, a native of Brewer, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of Johns Hopkins University or Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.