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Pivot into COVID-19 research eases as publishing surge starts to level off

In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, a lab run by virologist John Schoggins at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center became one of many around the world to shift its full attention to the crisis. He and his seven-person lab offered help to other scientists and physicians—by testing human saliva for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, for example—and also produced a handful of pandemic-related research papers.

But in recent months, as vaccines and treatments helped reduce the pandemic’s severity, members of the lab have turned away from working on COVID-19. With so many researchers piling into the field, Schoggins says, “there was a sense of saturation.” As a result, his Ph.D. candidates began looking elsewhere for promising dissertation topics.

Schoggins’s lab is part of a wider pivot away from COVID-19 research, recent analyses of publishing trends suggest. Overall, the number of pandemic-related papers appears set to decline this year, after explosive and unprecedented growth in 2020 and 2021 (see graph). In key disciplines such as infectious diseases and public health, the proportion of new papers devoted to COVID-19 appears to be flattening out (see table). And in fields more distant from pandemic science, the share of COVID-19 papers is declining, suggesting researchers are returning to their core interests.

Those developments are not surprising, observers say. “Now that many of the clinical and epidemiological knowledge gaps have been [filled], the research focus of most clinicians and epidemiologists is rightfully moving back towards their own specialist interests,” says Alimuddin Zumla, an infectious diseases researcher at University College London, who was not involved in the analyses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds: “There are many other priority killer [infectious] diseases which have been neglected during the COVID-19 era that need attention.” Other evidence suggests that in some fields, researchers who plunged into COVID-19 studies didn’t always produce their best work.

The pandemic prompted a massive influx of scientists into related research. As of April, more than 500,000 pandemic-related journal articles and preprints had appeared, according to an analysis of the Dimensions bibliographic database by Philip Shapira of the University of Manchester, who studies industrial innovation. Although those publications make up just 4% or so of all scientific papers published from 2019 through early this year, the surge of papers on a new topic was unmatched in the history of science. In certain disciplines the shift was especially dramatic. Shapira’s analysis—presented in an April bioRxiv preprint—shows that in virology, the share of papers focused on coronaviruses and the diseases they cause went from roughly 3% in 2019 to 28% in 2021, and in infectious diseases the share rose from less than 1% to 23%.

Such numbers have raised concerns about what some scientists call the COVID-ization of research. They fear too many researchers rushed into work outside of their expertise, resulting in poor-quality studies.

One recent analysis suggests such fears are not unfounded. Two-thirds of authors who had at least one publication on COVID-19 in 2020 had no previous papers on a related topic, Dashun Wang of Northwestern University and colleagues reported in an arXiv preprint in July 2021.

Topping out?
The number of publications on COVID-19 is forecast to decrease this year, although data lags might affect totals. (The total in all fields is also set to drop.)

In addition, by using a metric it developed, the team found that papers published on ­COVID-19 in 2020 had lower impact on average than non–COVID-19 papers published during the same year. Using a different metric that measured a paper’s novelty, the group found that the further a researcher had pivoted from their usual area of expertise, the lower the impact of their COVID-19 publications.

The lower impact of COVID-19 publications—and the corresponding lower professional rewards—could be one reason some researchers are retreating. Overall, Shapira’s analysis found that, in most of the roughly 230 scientific fields he studied, the share of papers focused on COVID-19 continued to increase through early this year, but at slower rates compared with 2021. But in about 70 fields—including emergency medicine, pharmacology, and the study of the respiratory system—the share is dropping.

Another likely cause of the shifts: Journal editors have become more choosey, says Jasper Fuk-Woo Chan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. He helps edit several journals and receives a steady flow of requests to review COVID-19 papers for others. “It’s getting more difficult to publish ­[COVID-19 articles] in good journals,” he says, with editors “expecting more details, more robust data, than in the first 1 to 2 years” of the pandemic. At that time, he says, journals published many duplicative “me too” papers.

The easing of the COVID-19 publishing frenzy doesn’t diminish the value of the work done by scientists who jumped into COVID-19 research—and of the experience they gained. “Not everything paid off,” Shapira says. But the influx “probably trained a whole set of researchers to think about pandemics from medical, public health, and other aspects. There’s been a human capital investment.”

For early-career researchers, however, the consequences of the massive pivot could be mixed. For some, the surge provided funding and publishing opportunities that could help their careers. But it may not be easy for them to adapt and prosper as funding and enthusiasm for COVID-19 research wane.

Growth chart
The rise in COVID-19 papers has slowed in some fields and peaked in others. Data for this year are through mid-April only. Percentages are rounded.
  % of all papers about COVID-19 or related diseases  
  2019 2020 2021 2022 Change in percentage points, 2021–22
Virology 3.1 17.4 28.4 37.1 8.8
Infectious diseases 0.8 13.2 23.0 23.8 0.9
Public environmental occupational health 0.2 7.8 17.0 17.5 0.5
Emergency medicine 0.0 7.8 11.4 8.0 –3.3
Medical informatics 0.0 6.3 13.8 11.5 –2.3
Respiratory system 0.1 6.3 10.1 9.5 –0.6
All science fields 0.0 1.7 3.7 3.9 0.3
Web of Science data used by R. Hill, et. al, arXiv:2107.06476

For example, when the UT Southwestern Medical Center recently hired a number of assistant professors, close to half of the applicants had shifted into COVID-19 research and some had co-authored high-profile studies, says microbiologist Julie Pfeiffer, a member of the search panel. That raised some red flags, says Schoggins, who also served on the panel. “We were concerned about their future fundability and ability to make an impact,” he says. “When they leave that incubator of high-profile [COVID-19] work, can they start their own lab and be independent?”

Future fundability might be of less concern for senior researchers who have studied COVID-19. In 2020 these older scientists were more likely than their younger peers to pivot into such work, Wang’s literature analysis found. And the papers often reported no grant support, Wang notes, leading him to speculate that senior scientists had the financial wherewithal to jump into new lines of research.

Discerning how many of the researchers who rushed into pandemic research ultimately remain could take several more years. But Seema Lakdawala, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, is one scientist who plans to stay the course. Before the pandemic, she studied influenza viruses and their airborne transmission, so investigating that aspect of SARS-CoV-2 became a natural fit for her group, she says, and she expects to continue studies on both types of viruses.

She is less concerned about the pivot away from COVID-19 by some researchers than about whether funding for such work, crucial to coping with future pandemics, will be sustained. “What I worry about is [whether] after this pandemic and its fatigue are over … we’ll have the investment that we need in all aspects of virology,” Lakdawala says. “We really need to be prepared for another eventual threat. It’s not hard to believe that this is going to happen again.”

Source: Science Mag