Wednesday 22 September 2021

Research and Researchers in the time of Covid-19: Part I

What our research shows
By Mridul Saxena and Alison McGonagle-O’Connell, MPS/HighWire Marketing

HighWire is the Awards and Bronze sponsor for the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2021

It usually takes 18–254 days to break or form a habit. The extended series of lockdowns due to Covid-19 has helped many to break some old habits and form new ones. This has changed the way we live, work, and socialize. The personal and professional lives of researchers are no exception, and like everyone else they also have adjusted to the ‘new normal.’ From conferences to collaborations, labs to the library, managing home and office from the same place, virtual meetings to getting accustomed to social media, one is left wondering “in the face of all these sudden changes, how is the scholarly community faring?” 

To explore these questions, we engaged a Stanford University-based research team, who conducted and analyzed 25 ethnographic interviews. The result was a thought-provoking two-hour community webinar in which the original research was presented by HighWire Founding Director John Sack, and then a panel of publishers, technologists, and researchers shared further insight and discussion, as well as engaged with audience questions.

This Part I post summarizes the findings from the original research presented at the event. Part II will summarize the panel discussion, so please stay tuned for that companion piece. Those eager to view the event may watch it in its entirety in the video recording below.

The ‘Time’ of Covid-19

Time is a researcher’s most precious commodity, and the Covid-19 pandemic did free up most of it for the researchers, which they otherwise would have spent in labs, commuting, and on other work. While an Internet connection, email access, Zoom connectivity, and access to most journals online were some of the silver linings, researchers with children found it difficult to utilize this ‘extra time’ toward their research work due to the caregiving responsibility. 

The Covid-19 pandemic also posed a problem for the researchers who ran experiments in labs and required people to conduct the research. However, field and lab scientists utilized their time in reading and writing during the pandemic and considered this duration the apt time to wrap up any pending publications and to re-familiarize themselves with the literature. Some researchers refined their running experiments and wrote review articles while trying to learn new skills.

Interaction-less virtual conferences  

Conferences have been one of the easiest ways to build relationships with fellow researchers and publishers. In-person meetings and conferences have now been replaced by ‘Zoom’ meetings and ‘Slack’ conversations. In the researchers’ opinions, the virtual conferences are helpful, though they miss certain key elements of virtual conferences—most notably, the ‘interaction.’ 

Zoom makes it easy to collaborate between institutions in cases where it is difficult to schedule and travel. Some researchers prefer Zoom meetings over in-person meetings, as they yield more equitable contributions than in-person meetings. The meeting hosts can control the flow of the meeting, which minimizes the chance of a single dominant voice, as usually happens during  in-person conferences.

However, meeting hosts and speakers are often confounded by the common question ‘Is everyone attentive during the talk?’ It is hard to judge the audience in virtual conferences, as the energy and enthusiasm are occasionally missing. The creativity, spontaneity, and unplanned interaction among the attendees during breaks, or while waiting for the next speaker to start, and the lively interaction over the following dinner are all lost in virtual meetings. A researcher also pointed out a specific challenge faced by many fellow researchers in the era of virtual meetings: that they do not know how to have conversations afterward in the virtual breakout rooms. 

The unexpected change

Change is permanent to human civilization, but the unexpected change brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic became a hard pill to swallow for many. As labs are now encouraging researchers to use their lab time for essential activities with social-distancing norms, researchers have seen a sharp decrease in productivity for months. Thus, the researchers are not only worried about the long-term consequences of that lost productivity, especially for early-career scientists, but also are of the opinion that the pandemic certainly has a lesser effect on theoretical and computational scientists. Researchers have been facing many challenges while publishing their papers during Covid-19, and these challenges are directly related to the slowing down of the processes due to the pandemic. A perceived longer peer review and publishing cycle did set off many researchers, but some did find the solution to these problems in preprints.

The publishing dilemma

Researchers have disclosed that their personal history of working with particular editors and having positive experiences with them have been instrumental in their decision to select a particular venue to submit their work for publication. Apart from these, researchers also look at the costs and other factors associated with submission to the high-impact journals. Researchers have been univocal on depositing data with the publishers and have termed it to be a “good practice”.

Among the biggest challenges that the researchers have experienced during the pandemic is the elongated publishing cycle. Early-career researchers (ECRs) have a particular challenge with these slower cycles. An 8–12-month cycle might become 20 months for ECRs just for a single article. Also, researchers face the burden of reformatting manuscripts and managing the complex design of HTML. PDF submission is still the first choice of researchers and is central to the reader experience. The journals that allow submission in simplified formats such as PDF still have higher approval ratings among these researchers as a preferred venue to publish their papers.

The social connection

Social media acted as a bridge between the researchers and publishers and helped them build and maintain connections during the pandemic. From Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, researchers found new ways to connect, gather, and absorb information. Twitter turns out to be the most preferred tool for many to find and gather information related to their field, with some outliers. YouTube is highly recommended among the mediums to consume information. A researcher whose work involves visualization and interactive graphs would opt for watching video content, as it is more interactive and useful than reading similar content as text only. The rise of these mediums underscores the importance of the already-ongoing shift toward multimedia for display of scholarly research content.

Twitter has emerged as the biggest game-changer for some researchers not only in terms of connecting with fellow researchers, suggesting articles, and getting reviews, but also regarding alerts. Researchers have reiterated that ‘tweets are faster than Google alerts’ or even journal ‘e-tocs.’ With both the author and the journal tweeting about the paper, tweets show up faster to the interested people. A tweet helps the reader extract the value of an article even faster than from reading the title. As the reader has already distilled information regarding the paper from the tweet, they may then focus on information that is more targeted to their interests. Twitter also lends authors the option of picking up on a tweet and retweeting it while also adding his or her spin on it.

Researchers can now easily get alerted to developments in their field by following the research groups with similar interests without the need to navigate Google Scholar or PubMed with keywords. The tools available on Google Scholar and other platforms are considered less useful regarding their ability to filter and absorb the required information. Researchers feel less overwhelmed by the ease of access to the amount of information on Twitter, and this could be the reason for the decline of alerts and e-tocs and the rise of Twitter. 

Slack and Zoom chat also find a notable mention in easing communication in these times of Covid-19. Being informal sources of information, they are useful for link sharing, sharing literature, and getting quick confirmation, and for other small and simple communication or interaction tasks that were previously managed via in-person interaction or emails.

The two sides of a coin: preprints 

Preprints can be a revolutionary option for authors, yet they can also present many challenges for researchers. Though preprints are a simple and effective way to share research, researchers have identified some gaps in awareness surrounding the best practices for posting and accessing preprints. Some researchers remain unsure of journal policies with regard to publishing research that has been posted on preprint servers, while others flag potential concerns around community expectations and dealing with the wide range of public comments. 

Preprints can facilitate the immediate availability of new information and can attract the attention of fellow researchers, whereas the researchers do think that preprints should go through a peer review and that readers need to exercise some caution while reading preprints critically. This means that researchers can then opt for multiple roles—both as a reviewer and as a reader at once.

Half of the researchers stated that they often post preprints only at the time of submission because they need to update the progress of a grant or an assessment. ECRs, job applicants, and grant writers prefer preprints in parallel to submitting research, which will inevitably queue up for a long peer-review process that is exacerbated by the pandemic 

Open access: ‘we’ll do it if we're funded to’

Funding and fees related to publishing Gold Open Access in fully OA or Hybrid OA journals is still a discussion point within the scholarly community. Authors from smaller institutions or less-funded regions are unable to pay the fees for open access unless their funders provide them funding support. However, the common opinion among researchers surrounding publishing OA is: we’ll do it if we're funded to do it. What researchers care about most is that their work is seen by the communities who understand its value—and that does not necessarily always point toward OA. 

Researchers have recommended that...

All of the researchers unambiguously recommended giving more opportunities to junior faculty, as this could be a gateway to long-lasting relationships with the editors and journals. To create a productive, diverse, and inclusive scholarly environment, publishers should make peer review a more transparent and collaborative process. The other important aspect that the publishers should consider is to simplify the burdensome manuscript submission process. The simplicity of posting preprints should be the benchmark for the journals in their revamping of submission workflows and configuration of supporting systems. Researchers also highly value and appreciate any help offered by publishers in promoting their work.

High five from HighWire’s Researcher Interviews

  1. Improve your Twitter game. Connect with your community. Be active! Share useful information.
  2. Support authors’ efforts to promote articles.
  3. Simplify submission workflow with format-neutral submissions.
  4. Consider allowing submission via preprint servers.
  5. Be a connector, even at virtual conferences. Everyone is missing that element of unplanned interaction.

HighWire is the Awards and Bronze sponsor for the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2021. To find out more about the conference and details for 2022, visit 

About the authors

Mridul Saxena,
Subject Matter Expert, MPS

Mridul strategizes, plans, and executes marketing activities for group brands including MPS Limited, Mag+ and HighWire . Mridul is a writer who observes the creative side of every task and infuses his work with over seven years of industry-wide experience in media, public relations, and corporate communications. Mridul studied Journalism, and is an Honours graduate of Delhi University. He is also a sports enthusiast, and enjoys reading mythological books. His favorite number is 42.



Alison McGonagle-O’Connell, Senior Director of Marketing, HighWire Press

Alison is an experienced marketing professional with nearly two decades of demonstrated history of working in the publishing industry, including 10 years marketing scholarly communications workflow solutions.  Alison leads HighWire Marketing and is responsible for continually growing and supporting our community. 

Alison is active as a volunteer in industry initiatives including CRediT and as a Library Trustee in her hometown of South Hampton, New Hampshire in the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment