Before you next read any science or health news, read this… We really think it’s important that the public understands that.
According to recent findings from the University of Georgia, a majority of individuals lack an understanding of the distinction between a preprint and a published academic journal article.
Preprints are scientific papers that have not undergone the process of peer review, wherein independent experts validate the study’s findings.
The research demonstrated that the vast majority of readers are unaware of what a preprint is. This lack of understanding could make people less trusting of science, since between the preprint phase and publication after peer review, findings and how they are described can change. Having a lot of scientific preprints in the news could also hurt people’s trust in it.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, preprints were mostly shared within scientific communities. But because of that, an unprecedented number of preprints are now all over the internet.
The researchers acknowledged that there was a natural human impulse to disseminate news as rapidly as possible. Yet, it also creates a questionable precedent.
Chelsea Ratcliff, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, explained that preprints are still subject to uncertainties that have not been resolved.
Many preprints are not even published, and it is crucial for the public to comprehend this fact.
“If people are basing attitudes, for example, about a new drug on evidence from a preprint or if they’re basing health decisions on a preprint, they should be able to have a sense of its preliminary nature.”
The researchers had 415 participants read news items about the study that was published in the COVID-19 preprint. The link between COVID-19 vaccine side effects and immunization effectiveness was the main topic of the preprint.
Two groups were presented with different versions of the same stories. In one group, the study was referred to as “a preprint study recently posted online and not yet evaluated by outside experts,” while the other group was presented with a version that merely referred to it as a “study.”
The news article offered two options for presenting the research findings: one version presented the conclusions tentatively by using words such as “suggest” or “could,” indicating that the data was not entirely conclusive. In contrast, the other version portrayed the findings as definite and certain.
Interestingly, when the report said that the results were uncertain, participants did assess the results as less definite. Nevertheless, the participants’ understanding of the study was unaffected by the use of the phrase “preprint” in the text or the statement that the research had not been subjected to peer review. The level of research certainty was the same for both groups.
When the participants were asked to define what they thought the term “preprint” meant when it appeared in a scientific news report, 75% of them provided an explanation that suggested they didn’t fully understand what it meant.
Chelsea Ratcliff, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, suggested that students view a single study as a mere contribution to the vast knowledge about a particular subject. The author emphasized that no single study can prove or disprove anything, and that additional caution should be taken when interpreting preprint studies. Ratcliff acknowledged the value of preprints but stressed that merely labeling them as such is insufficient to convey their preliminary nature to the public.
Co-author Alice Fleerackers, a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, agreed and recommended finding alternative methods for effectively communicating the significance of preprints. Merely describing research as a “preprint” with a brief definition did not appear to be a sufficient solution, according to Fleerackers.
Researchers said that journalists who write about preprint studies should briefly explain how academic peer review works and warn readers that the results of preprints can change.
According to Chelsea Ratcliff, reporting on preprints surged during the pandemic. However, preprints’ primary function before this period was for scientists to share their discoveries with their peers, rather than to influence public policy, attitudes, or behaviors. This fact is worth considering for readers, as preprints should not be interpreted as definitive evidence.
The work was published in the Health Communication journal.
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