Research dissemination in the time of COVID-19

View of Libe Slope from Uris Library Cocktail Lounge

The current pandemic has brought heightened attention to the need for researchers to be able to disseminate their COVID-19 research findings openly and quickly, while still engaging the peer-review process.

The need for both speed and rigorous review can occasionally come into conflict; witness the high-profile retraction of an article published in the Lancet, on the use of anti-malarial drugs in the treatment of COVID-19. In this case, even the formal peer-review process of a well- established and respected journal failed to prevent the initial publication of flawed research.

Advocates for speedy dissemination of research argue, however, that early and informal feedback can substantially improve research even before it reaches the peer-review stage, and they are experimenting with ways to encourage the review of yet-to-be-published papers. Preprint services such as arXiv, medRxiv, and bioRxiv support the distribution of drafts of papers, while also cautioning that the content they host has not been reviewed and should not be reported as established information. An alternate strategy researchers might consider for maximizing access to their work as soon as possible while still erring on the side of caution is to post their findings immediately after they have been reviewed and revised.

In addition to the preprint services mentioned above, established institutional repositories, such as Cornell’s eCommons, offer a means for open distribution of drafts of research papers, even while they work their way through a journal publisher’s peer-review process. Indeed, these services were mainly established for the rapid, free, and open dissemination of research, and Cornell University Library routinely responds to federal requests for comment on matters related to research dissemination and open scholarship.

We’re delighted to see that a few Cornell researchers have already taken advantage of eCommons to share COVID-19 research, and we want to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible for other contributors. There are a few key principles to keep in mind:

  • It is critical that authors understand the copyright and sharing policies of their journal publishers. Some journals allow authors to distribute online preprints (the author’s final draft, before peer review) or postprints (the final draft after peer review, but before journal formatting and copyediting) of forthcoming papers. Most journals do not allow authors to post the journal’s PDF. We encourage authors to review the copyright policies of journals they are considering. The SHERPA/RoMEO database also provides an easy way to look up a journal’s policies, and authors might take this information into account when they select journals for possible publication. Additional information on managing your rights as an author is available.
  • The journal may require the application of a particular license, and that draft versions also provide a link to the version eventually published by the journal. One example of a license many journals require for drafts of papers they eventually publish is Creative Commons’ Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence, or CC BY-NC-ND.
  • What a journal allows may depend on the policies of the funders that supported the work. These policies may mean that a journal will allow prepublication sharing of papers funded by a particular agency or program, even though they would not otherwise allow sharing. It is important to acknowledge those funding sources in the paper.

Additional information for prospective submitters is available on the eCommons COVID-19 help page, and the eCommons team also welcomes your questions.

June 24, 2020


Gail Steinhart

Gail Steinhart
Open Scholarship Services Librarian
Cornell University Library Information Technology

Views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not represent endorsement by Cornell University.
Image: View of Libe Slope from Uris Library Cocktail Lounge by Carla DeMello, Cornell University Library Communications