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Data scientist overwhelmed by Covid-19 research papers

Published May 20, 2020


DURBAN - Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, data scientists have been swamped reading coronavirus-related scientific papers.

More than 23 000 papers on coronavirus have been published since January - the biggest explosions of scientific literature ever.

Research scientist Timothy Sheahan, said: “I wish I could keep pace with the growing torrent of new scientific papers about the disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it. But there are just too many—more than 4000 alone last week. I’m not keeping up. It’s impossible.”

Despite their increased workload, coronavirus experts emphasize the importance of swift peer review to combat misinformation to better address the pandemic and intend to continue reviewing as many papers as they can. Most of the data in these new coronavirus papers is going to be solid.

“Before the pandemic happened, I was asked to review maybe one to two coronavirus papers per year. I am now getting three to four requests per week and have been reviewing one per week,” said Andrew Ward, a computational biologist who has researched coronaviruses for a number of years.

Ward also noted that when established experts such as himself can’t review a coronavirus manuscript, journals “have to go down the food chain to people with lesser experience or no experience in coronaviruses. This increases the risk of reviewers missing errors in the study design or analysis, which could lead to the spread of inaccurate information.”

Meanwhile, a team of data scientists, software developers, and journal publishers is working on creating digital collections holding thousands of freely available papers that could be useful to ending the pandemic, and scrambling to build data-mining and search tools that can help researchers quickly find the information they seek.

“People don’t have time to read through entire articles and figure out what is the value-added and the bottom line, and what are the limitations,” said Kate Grabowski, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU’s) who is leading an effort to create a curated set of pandemic papers.

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