It has been – and for a while, will be – everywhere. The words: COVID-19, coronavirus and pandemic. According to an article by Holly Else in Nature, “coined in April by Madhukar Pai, a tuberculosis researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, ‘covidization’ describes the distorting impact of the pandemic on the way science is funded, produced, published and reported on.”
Pai identifies three problem areas within “covidization.”
Where’d the money go?
“The first is funders diverting or delaying money from curiosity-driven research and handing it to pandemic-related proposals.” This can make researchers feel like their work is no longer critical if it doesn’t have anything to do with the coronavirus. For instance, Lis Evered, a researcher who studies peri-operative cognitive disorders in older people, said in the same Nature article: “I was carrying around this burden of thinking that I’m a complete failure because I’m not leading the charge on curing COVID. It felt like my work was not important anymore.”
Qualified or not?
“The second problem is scientists from different fields now researching and publishing on epidemiology, infectious diseases and immunology — areas in which they might be poorly qualified.” As irritating as it is dangerous, the host of self-proclaimed experts discipline-hop and suddenly are experts on a virus without the credentials to back them up. “Irritating” is right: we’ve all read the Huffington Post articles that proclaim smugly they are “scientists” or “researchers,” only to discover with some simple googling that the person has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature or something else unrelated.
An aside — this is not to say the soft sciences can’t weigh in on COVID-19. For example, Ezemenari Obasi in the Department of Psychological, Health, & Learning Sciences at University of Houston is doing research to combat vaccine hesitancy in Black and Latinx communities in the city, by listening to their fears.
It’s raining … COVID research?
“The third is that, given the deluge of research done under the umbrella of COVID-19 often published as unreviewed preprints, it’s increasingly hard for the public, media and policymakers to distinguish reliable evidence from the rest.” This is the burden which comes from an excess of information at our fingertips.
In Science magazine, Kai Kupferschmidt writes: “New England Journal of Medicine Editor-in-Chief Eric Rubin concedes there is a tension between rigor and speed. The journal’s review process for COVID-19 papers, he notes, is basically the same as always but much faster. ‘We and authors could do a more careful job if we had more time,’ he wrote in an email. ‘But, for now, physicians are dealing with a crisis and the best quality information available quickly is better than perfect information that can’t be accessed until it’s not helpful.’”
“Blogs and preprint servers mean that half-baked ideas and poor-quality research do not have to pass peer review, [Pai] says. For instance, studies from non-experts have appeared on how eating cucumber and cabbage can protect against the coronavirus.”
The Big Idea
Know and believe that your research is important, whether it is COVID-related or not. Stay away from dubious “research findings” that might not be in a person’s wheelhouse. And whatever you do, stay healthy – mentally and physically. History shows that every other health crisis has run its course from Spanish Influenza to Zika to the swine flu. The “covidization” of our culture will one day come to an end.