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Published evidence on COVID-19 in top-ranked journals: A descriptive study

  • Juan M Pericàs
    Correspondence
    Correspondence author.
    Affiliations
    Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine Service and Hospital at Home Unit, Medical and Nurse Direction. Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Villarroel Street 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain
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  • Andrea Arenas
    Affiliations
    Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine Service and Hospital at Home Unit, Medical and Nurse Direction. Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Villarroel Street 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain
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  • Orla Torrallardona-Murphy
    Affiliations
    Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine Service and Hospital at Home Unit, Medical and Nurse Direction. Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Villarroel Street 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain
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  • Helena Valero
    Affiliations
    Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine Service and Hospital at Home Unit, Medical and Nurse Direction. Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Villarroel Street 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain
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  • David Nicolás
    Affiliations
    Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine Service and Hospital at Home Unit, Medical and Nurse Direction. Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Villarroel Street 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain
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      Keywords

      The COVID-19 pandemic has generated an unprecedented global scientific effort to provide swift answers to pressing health needs. While many hospitals turned into almost exclusive COVID-19 centres during part of the pandemic; funding bodies, research offices, drug agencies, ethical committees, health authorities, and editorial boards of scientific journals prioritized COVID-19 related projects and articles. This contributed to the generation of a vast volume of scientific material. However, the rush to characterise this new disease since the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China has led to issues with ethical and scientific rigour aspects [
      • Servick K.
      • Enserink M.
      The pandemic's first major research scandal erupts.
      ,

      Watson J.An open letter to Mehra et al. and The Lancet. May 28, 2020. Last accessed June 5, 2020. https://zenodo.org/record/3862789#.Xto85y0ryjQ.

      ,

      Official Statement from International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (ISAC). Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of COVID-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial (Gautret P et al. PMID 32205204), April 3, 2020. Last accessed June 5, 2020. https://www.isac.world/news-and-publications/official-isac-statement.

      ,
      • Enserink M.
      • Kupferschmidt K.
      Mathematics of life and death: how disease models shape national shutdowns and other pandemic policies.
      ].
      We aimed to investigate the scientific material generated during this pandemic by assessing the profile of articles in top-ranked scientific journals (TRSJ), focusing on categories related to COVID-19 research or management. To do so, we accessed the ten top-journal webpages in 16 categories (See Supplementary Table) according to the current Journal Citation Reports as stated by the Web of Science []. We assessed articles addressing COVID-19 by reviewing the title and abstract, from December 16th, 2019 to May 3rd, 2020 and classified said articles by date of online publication, type of study, corresponding author's country of origin, uninational or multinational collaboration, and main study topic.
      A total of 32,249 articles were published in the 160 TRSJ included in our study over our 5-month study period. Of these, 2209 (6.8%) addressed COVID-19 (Table 1). The timeline of COVID-19 article production in the evaluated issues can be seen in Fig. 1.
      Table 1Characteristics of articles on COVID-19 published in top-ranked journals during the study period.
      General features
      Articles published
      - Total32,249
      - Median per journal (IQR)141 (77–289.5)
      COVID articles published
      - Total, n (%)2209 (6.8%)
      - Median (IQR)4 (0–14.8)
      Profile of the journals
      - Impact factor, median (IQR)10.491 (7.167–16.601)
      - Eigen factor, median (IQR0.04 (0.02–0.07)
      - Associated to scientific society or institution, n (%)74 (46.3%)
      - Specific COVID-19 section in webpage, n (%)63 (39.4%)
      Journals that have published more extensively on COVID-19, n (% over total articles)
      - Annual Rev Virology3/4 (75%)
      - Eurosurveillance54/104 (51.9%)
      - J infection107/241 (44.4%)
      - Lancet Public Health32/89 (36%)
      - Lancet Infectious Diseases93/310 (30%)
      - Lancet175/653 (26.8%)
      - Lancet Resp Med51/191 (26.7%)
      - Nature Rev Immunol25/101 (24.8%)
      Profile of COVID-19 articles
      By category. COVID-19 articles/total, n (%)
      - Medicine, general and internal621/4085 (15.2%)
      - Infectious diseases421/2992 (14.1%)
      - Public, environmental and occupational health98/779 (12.6%)
      - Immunology145/1829 (7.9%)
      - Respiratory system191/2757 (6.9%)
      - Critical care medicine135/2433 (5.5%)
      - Cardiac and cardiovascular surgery127/2338 (5.4%)
      - Gastroenterology106/2466 (4.3%)
      - Oncology55/1429 (3.8%)
      - Surgery87/2424 (3.6%)
      - Radiology78/2142 (3.6%)
      - Medicine, research and experimental48/1381 (3.5%)
      - Virology37/1208 (3.1%)
      - Microbiology10/568 (1.8%)
      - Haematology31/1852 (1.7%)
      - Clinical neurology19/1566 (1.2%)
      Multinational studies, n (%)333 (15.1%)
      Country of corresponding author
      - United States752 (34%)
      - China544 (24.6%)
      - United Kingdom273 (12.4%)
      - Italy170 (7.7%)
      - France59 (2.7%)
      - Singapore58 (2.6%)
      - Canada43 (1.9%)
      - Switzerland40 (1.8%)
      - Germany32 (1.4%)
      - Netherlands30 (1.4%)
      - Other208 (9.4%)
      Total number of countries56
      Type or article
      Original articles465 (21%)
      - Randomized clinical trials2 (0.4%)
      - Mathematical models9 (1.9%)
      Reviews102 (4.6%)
      Commentary*1537 (69.6%)
      Case reports105 (4.8%)
      Main topic
      Epidemiology329 (14.9%)
      Interventions and health services475 (21.5%)
      Clinical manifestations and prognosis502 (22.7%)
      Microbiology75 (3.4%)
      Diagnosis182 (8.2%)
      Management205 (9.3%)
      Immunology47 (2.1%)
      Other394 (17.8%)
      Special topics
      Health inequalities78 (3.5%)
      Drug interactions26 (1.2%)
      *Including pieces such as Editorials. Correspondence/Letters to Editor. Perspectives. Comments. and Overview.
      Fig. 1
      Fig. 1COVID-19 publishing timeline during the study period.
      The categories with the most COVID-19 related articles were “Medicine, internal and general” and “Infectious diseases” (28.1% and 19.1% of COVID-19 articles, respectively). Remarkably, the number of studies in “Virology” and “Microbiology” was relatively low (less than 1% and 2%). Just 15.1% articles were the result of multinational collaborations. The United States produced the largest amount of the articles in this study, and together with China and the United Kingdom accounted for 71% of total COVID-19 articles, the remaining 29% originating in 53 other countries. Almost 70% of the articles were viewpoints, editorials or letters, and only 21% of them were original investigations. The most commonly addressed topics related to clinical manifestations and prognosis or interventions and health services.
      Our findings show an exponential production of COVID-19 articles in TRSJ, especially since the end of March. However, the proportion of articles addressing COVID-19 in relation to the total does not reach 7% overall, which might appear low when most investigators, editorial boards and reviewers seem to have had the impression of dealing exclusively with COVID-19 issues during recent months. However, if we consider the area of knowledge encompassed in these 16 categories, it is remarkable that a single topic accounts for 7% of the articles published over 5 months. Secondly, COVID-19 has had a relatively large impact in TRSJ of broad scope, whereas relatively few publications have been in specialised journals, which we would have assumed would focus on COVID-19 such as Microbiology and Virology. This might be explained by the need for further basic and translational research efforts. Thirdly, the low proportion of multinational collaborations surprised us, as COVID-19 is a global threat and requires international effort. Fourthly, more than two thirds of the articles published are largely based on opinion and analyses rather than on original data. This can be explained by the great concern and interest triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic but it also reveals a reversal in the usual scientific publication process (first evidence, then analysis). Finally, there is a lack of correlation between how countries have been affected by COVID-19 and the number of articles published in TRSJ. This could be due to the fact that while countries most affected by COVID-19 may have had the research capacity, research prioritization by local health agencies, and participation in international research networks which account for the production of original evidence, there has been a massive publication of opinion pieces, which tend to be commissioned by journals to experts based in their own countries
      In conclusion, during the first 5 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the volume of COVID-19 related articles made up almost 7% of items published in TRSJ. However, the vast majority were not original investigations.

      CRediT authorship contribution statement

      Juan M Pericàs: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Software, Supervision, Validation, Visualization, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Andrea Arenas: Data curation, Investigation, Visualization, Writing - review & editing. Orla Torrallardona-Murphy: Data curation, Investigation, Visualization, Writing - review & editing. Helena Valero: Data curation, Investigation, Visualization, Writing - review & editing. David Nicolás: Conceptualization, Investigation, Methodology, Resources, Supervision, Visualization, Writing - review & editing.

      Declaration of Competing Interest

      None.

      Appendix. Supplementary materials

      References

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        • Enserink M.
        The pandemic's first major research scandal erupts.
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      2. Official Statement from International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (ISAC). Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of COVID-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial (Gautret P et al. PMID 32205204), April 3, 2020. Last accessed June 5, 2020. https://www.isac.world/news-and-publications/official-isac-statement.

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