Preprints and Pandemics: Interventions into the Dynamic System of Scholarly Communication


The COVID-19 pandemic is an exemplar of how scholarly communication can change in response to external shocks, even as the scholarly knowledge ecosystem is evolving rapidly, and many argue that swift and fundamental interventions are needed. However, it is much easier to identify ongoing changes and emerging interventions than to understand their immediate and long term impacts. This is illustrated by comparing the approaches applied by the scientific community to understand public health risks and interventions with those applied by the scholarly communications community to the science of COVID-19. There are substantial disagreements over the short- and long- term benefits of most proposed approaches to changing the practice of science communication, and the lack of systematic, empirically-based research in this area makes these controversies difficult to resolve. We argue that the methodology of analysis and intervention developed within public health can be usefully applied to the science-of-science. Starting with the history of DDT application, we illustrate four ways complex human systems threaten reliable predictions and blunt ad-hoc interventions. We then show how these four threats apply lead to the last major intervention in scholarly publication – the article publishing charge based open access model – to yield surprising results. Finally, we outline how these four threats may affect the impact of preprint initiatives, and we identify approaches drawn from public health to mitigate these threats.