Well, no more. When the pandemic hit, it simply wasn’t tenable to keep playing the old, slow, closed game, and the scientific community let loose. Peer review—the real thing, not just the formal version locked up by for-profit companies—broke out of its constraints. A good deal of the research community started publishing its findings as “preprints”—basically, papers before they get approved by formal publications—placing them in nonprofit scientific depositories that had no paywalls. The preprints were then fiercely and openly debated—often on social media, which is not necessarily the ideal place for it, but that’s what we had. Sometimes, the release of data was even faster: Some of the most important initial data about the immune response to the worrisome U.K. variant came from a Twitter thread by a tired but generous researcher in Texas. It showed true scientific spirit: The researcher’s lab was eschewing the prestige of being first to publish results in a manuscript by allowing others to get to work as fast as possible. The papers often also went through the formal peer review as well, eventually getting published in a journal, but the pandemic has forced many of these companies to drop their paywalls—besides, the preprints on which the final papers are based remain available to everyone.
Working together, too, has expanded in ways that were hard to imagine without the new digital tools that allow for rapid sharing and collaboration, and also the sense of urgency that broke through disciplinary silos.
For example, in early 2020, after I started writing about the necessity of wearing a mask, it became clear that we also needed detailed scientific articles looking at the science of the efficacy of masks for dampening community transmission. The questions the topic touched on involved many disciplines, including infectious diseases, aerosol science, and sociology. So I teamed up with a group of scientists, doctors, researchers, and data analysts across the globe to co-write an academic paper, and from start to finish, it was like nothing I had done before. A lot of scientific work involves international teams, but this time we had assembled practically on the fly: the co-authors lived in cities as varied as Cape Town, South Africa; Beijing, China; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (me!); Stanford, California; and Oxford, England. We would eventually publish in the most highly cited scientific outlet in the world, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which is more than 100 years old. Most of the tools we used, however—shared editing of scientific papers, videochat and other forms of meetings—weren’t widely available or as easy to use even just a few years ago.
Like many others, we didn’t wait for formal peer review to end before sharing our findings. We quickly put our paper onto a preprint server so that it could receive both open peer review from the scientific community and questions and comments from other relevant stakeholders, including policy makers and even ordinary people trying to puzzle through a confusing time. And feedback came in quickly: We received thoughtful and lengthy emails and Twitter corrections and comments, which were extremely useful—as well as much less useful contributions, which sometimes involved random people getting mad at us. I started categorizing the feedback on the sections I’d worked on, as did many of my collaborators. Even before the first round of formal peer reviews were in, we used that feedback to generate a new, stronger version, which we added to the preprint server. We then got our initial round of formal peer review—which we also found quite useful. We updated the paper again, resubmitted the new version to PNAS, and waited for a second round of peer review (which took many months, but was also very useful). Finally, about a year later: acceptance and formal publication.