Non-COVID-19 papers will be rejected by medical journals, researchers fear


By Megan Howe

1 Oct 2020

Clinician researchers have raised concerns that publication of important new research on diseases other than COVID-19 is being delayed as an influx of research on the pandemic take precedence in medical journals.

Medical Journal of Australia Editor-In-Chief Professor Nick Talley says it appears researchers are finding it more difficult to get their work published if it is not on COVID-19, given the public health priority to disseminate new research on the pandemic.

He was talking to the limbic after the issue was raised on Twitter by Dr Scott Halpern, a US-based critical care medicine specialist and Professor of Medicine, Epidemiology, and Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

The deluge of COVID-19 journal articles has itself become the focus of research: a study published in PLOSOne found that after January 2020, non-COVID-19 full-length studies decreased by 0.7 per issue on average.

“The flood of submissions and the demand for COVID-19 related work presents publishers and editors with the dilemma of accepting fewer non-COVID-19 publications, quality notwithstanding,” the authors wrote. And the rejection or delay of such papers would contribute to a growing backlog of unpublished non-COVID-19 related research, hindering further dissemination, they suggested.

Meanwhile another study found there were 23,634 journal papers published related to COVID-19 in the first six months of 2020 in journals that are indexed on two major databases – Web of Science and Scopus. Of these, almost half (47.6%) were research papers, with the largest number of COVID-19 related papers published by the BMJ (456), Journal of Medical Virology (248) and The Lancet (183).

Professor Talley, a leading gastroenterology researcher and Laureate Professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, said there appeared to have been a big jump overall in submissions to journals – both of COVID-19 and non-COVID-related papers.

Paradoxically, pandemic-related disruption of research studies and clinical trials may have given researchers more time to write papers, he suggested.

“A number of journals only have a certain amount of room to publish, so clearly it is being affected by a spike in COVID papers that wouldn’t normally be there, and that will be squeezing non-COVID papers,” he said.

The MJA had received double the usual number of submissions between March and August 2020, Professor Talley said. About one-third of the submitted papers were related to COVID-19, while two-thirds were non-COVID-related.

He said every submission was assessed by the journal on its merits as usual, and those deemed suitable after internal and external review were accepted for publication whether or not they were about COVID-19.

However, some COVID-19 papers had been prioritised for publication.

“We’ve felt that is important and really critical to get COVID papers out because they are going to be important to clinicians and to government decisions. But we still have a got a very high rejection rate – it is not like we’ve dropped the quality.”

With the pandemic continuing and many questions about COVID-19 still unanswered – from treatments to vaccines to long-term effects – Professor Talley said disseminating new research remained vital.

And contrary to Professor Halpern’s suggestion about holding off from publication, Professor Talley advised researchers not to delay submitting non-COVID-related papers to journals.

“I suspect if it’s a really important, high quality paper, it will still progress if it is submitted now,” he said. “What I would say to researchers is spend time getting your paper as good as you can, because you don’t want it to be rejected in a more competitive environment than normal.”

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