How is emerging health research communicated online?

A person reading on their computer while taking notes
Image by Olivia Aguiar

In the slow, unpredictable world of journal publication, preprints—unreviewed published papers—offer a mechanism for rapidly communicating health research with the scholarly community.

Historically, media coverage of preprints was discouraged in journalism, due to potential concerns about reporting flawed, biased, or provisional research. In recent years, the urgency to address the pandemic and absence of relevant peer-reviewed studies led to a surge of media coverage of COVID-19 preprints.

In 2020, the ScholCommLab initiated a SSHRC-funded project Sharing Health Research. It aims to explore how, where, and among whom health information circulates online, in the form of research publications, preprints, news stories, social media posts, and more.

Alice Fleerackers—PhD candidate and researcher in the ScholCommLab—has since led a series of qualitative and quantitative studies to understand how preprints are portrayed, understood, and communicated online in the pandemic era.

Read more to learn about Alice’s work: how preprints are framed by media outlets, what journalists’ have to say about preprints, and how the public reacts to emerging health research.

Framing preprints as uncertain in the media

In a study (published in Health Communication in 2021), Alice and fellow ScholCommLab members—Michelle Riedlinger, Laura Moorhead, Rukhsana Ahmed, and Juan Pablo Alperin—examined more than 450 stories mentioning COVID-19-related preprints to understand how media outlets reported on these unreviewed studies. 

Some outlets—such as Medscape and Wired—almost always framed the preprints they mentioned as uncertain, describing them as unreviewed, preliminary, or in need of further verification or explicitly labeling them as “preprints.” Other outlets—including The Conversation and New York Times—emphasized uncertainty less than half of the time.

As findings may change from the preprint to the final peer-reviewed journal, transparency in communicating scientific uncertainty becomes crucial to avoid confusion within and beyond the scholarly community. 

But to Alice and her coauthors, it still wasn’t clear what might be going on behind the scenes. What practices do journalists’ use to communicate about preprints?

A careful calculation

In a follow-up study, published in PLOS ONE in 2022, Alice and her co-authors—Laura Moorhead, Lauren Maggio, Kaylee Fagan, and Juan Pablo Alperin—explored journalists’ use and perception of preprints. Kaylee—a former journalist—led interviews with 19 journalists, asking questions related to the benefits and risks of covering preprints; how journalists’ find, verify, and communicate preprints; and how the pandemic affected their use.

The researchers found that deciding to cover preprints is a careful calculation, where journalists weigh the potential public benefits and accessibility of preprints against the risks of spreading misinformation. 

Journalists also described maintaining “extra skepticism” when covering preprint studies, relying on strategies such as reaching out to scientists unaffiliated with the research to ask for a critique of the work. Even with these strategies, many journalists also felt they lacked the expertise or time required to fully vet the research.

Three people reading while sitting on top of a book stack
Image by Olivia Aguiar

Implications for the public

With increased coverage of preprint research in the media, Alice and her colleagues—Chelsea Ratcliff, Rebekah Wicke, Blue Harvill, Andy King, and Jakob Jensen—were curious to learn more on how the public interpreted unpublished or unverified information.

In a mixed methods study (published in Health Communication in 2023) led by Chelsea, they asked US adults to read a news story on preprint COVID-19 vaccine research. Some participants read a version of the story in which scientific claims were “hedged” or qualified with terms like “may,” “might,” or “suggest” to convey their tentativeness, while others read an unhedged version. In addition, half of the stories explicitly mentioned the preprint status of the research (along with a brief definition), while the other half simply referred to the research as a “study.” 

Those who read the hedged articles reported less favourable attitudes towards the vaccine and found the scientists and news reporting less trustworthy overall. In contrast, describing the study as a preprint did not influence participants’ attitudes or beliefs in any significant way, perhaps because they did not understand what the term meant. A qualitative analysis of the survey data revealed that only about 1 in 4 participants was able to define the term ‘preprint’ accurately.

Journalists are often encouraged to include these disclosures of preprint status in their stories to prevent audiences from putting too much trust in findings that could change in the future or fail to pass peer review. But the study suggests that more needs to be done to help audiences fully grasp what the term ‘preprint’ means.

Communicating about preprints online

Ensuring news stories provide the context needed to support audiences in evaluating preprint research is especially important in a digital media environment. An additional study found that citizens often shared COVID-19 preprint stories covered by The Conversation—an outlet that seldom mentioned the unreviewed or preliminary nature of these studies—on social media.

That is, the public—with limited knowledge of what preprints are—shared links to stories, unaware they were amplifying preprint research. Circulating preprints may be helpful at times (e.g., providing life-saving information at a time of need). But in some cases, controversial and low quality preprints make the news, which may harm citizens—especially if the unvetted nature of the research was not transparently communicated.

“It’s up to all of us to develop responsible and ethical norms around how, when, and why to use preprints.”

– Alice Fleerackers

Communicating preprints beyond the pandemic

According to Alice, “It’s up to all of us to develop responsible and ethical norms around how, when, and why to use preprints.” Both journalists and scientists agree that preprints are here to stay. But these studies suggest that we need better strategies to support journalists in using them responsibly.

Alice is expanding on her findings on journalism and preprints as part of a new project—the Value of Openness, Inclusion, Communication, and Engagement for Science in a Post-Pandemic World (VOICES). This international, interdisciplinary team will explore how journalists use other Open Science outputs, such as data sets and Open Access publications. 

The team hopes to offer insight on how the scholarly and journalism communities can better work together to provide trusted public health information and support public engagement with science and evidence, even when misinformation and scientific uncertainty are high.

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