During the crisis of the Coronavirus, many citizens are immersed in the scientific literature to seek answers to their doubts and fears, attitude is understandable in the heart of a period novel and stressful. Researchers, too, are involved in an exceptional way, launching of research projects on the subject at any speed. The scientific publications related to the Coronavirus have exploded. The database of the NLM (National Library of Medicine) were beginning of June more than 17,000 published articles on the novel coronavirus and the site bioRxiv, which hosts articles that have not yet been the subject of a peer review, lists more than 4,000 articles on the subject. This passion for science is very positive, but sometimes a source of misunderstanding very deep, because the common man is not accustomed to the reading and interpretation of scientific documents. Carl Zimmer, a science journalist for the New York Times, gives a few tips on how to read this “literary genre” very particular, that we summarize here.
The opening of scientific data to inform public health measures
January 31, 2020, the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation of medicine which the seat is in Great Britain, has described the coronavirus ” a threat is significant and immediate for health in the world “, and encouraged the opening of the scientific data that the scientific community can make its contribution to the response to the health crisis. Researchers, journals and funding agencies have responded to the results of the research and the data linked with the epidemic are shared quickly and openly.
The world has been able to gain access, exceptionally, to a large number of scientific articles, usually inaccessible without a paid subscription to scientific journals.
But, in the face of this tsunami of articles, you need to know filter. The reporter for the New York Times recommends first of all to use a search engine such as Google Scholar, for example, to search for articles by key word or by author. The profusion of published articles should invite great caution because all items are not created equal. It should, therefore, avoid take it as a truth in the first article come and look for other similar publications to compare.
The origin and importance of the peer review
The first scientific articles were more like letters between friends, which were published in scientific journals. From 1900, following the advances of science, the publishers of the journals were not experts in everything and have started to send articles to outside specialists who better understood the details, to help validate the content that they were going to publish. After a few decades, this practice has been structured and systematized, as a way to ensure the quality of the published articles. This step of the publication process is now known under the name peer review (peer review in English).
A journal will not publish an article only after a group of external researchers, the reading committee, will validate the contents as acceptable.
Replay by peers is therefore a guarantee of quality, but attention must be paid! First of all, a good article may very well be released before going through the peer review. This does not mean a bad article, to be classified immediately in the category of “fake news”. It is simply an article awaiting validation. Conversely, an article of average quality may very well pass through the filter of the playback by the peers. It is not because an article has been validated that it automatically represents an absolute truth.
According to Zimmer, when one reads a scientific article, it is important to maintain a skepticism reasonable, both for the articles to peer-reviewed that for those that have not been revised: “this is not because a document passes peer review, it is above all consideration.”
The #Lancetgate, which currently rages, is a case in point: a study validated by peers and published by the prestigious journal The Lancet, may 22, establishing the non-effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, or even dangerous. This study has been strongly criticized by a part of the scientific community.
The texts to the unusual format (in four parts)
The scientific articles have a particular format, far different from the articles in news or classic literature. They usually begin with a little context to justify the new research that they contain. The authors then describe the methods they have used to conduct this research, then present the results of their research, and end with a discussion on the significance of these results. Scientists usually stress the gaps in their own research and offer ideas for new studies to see if their interpretations can be supplemented or confirmed.
In general, researchers are not trained to write and their style of language can be sometimes difficult to understand. This is in addition to requests for publications or reviewers who can modify the structure and complicate its understanding.
Social networks : reliable sources?
According to Zimmer, New York TImes, social networks are not good or bad in and of itself, to find scientific information. They are even very rich, which allows access to discussion threads, on Twitter, for example, of very high quality, with top-level debates, argumentative, between serious scientists who discuss the validity of such or such article. You just need to ensure to follow people with a depth of expertise, and not bots or accounts complotistes or broadcast of fake news.
Finally, when you read a scientific article, try to think, as do other scientists. Ask yourself a few basic questions to judge their value. Does the data take into account only a few patients or thousands of them? The article confuses t he correlation and causality? The authors present-they actually needed evidence to draw their conclusions? Judge for yourself!