Authors : Alice Fleerackers, Laura L. Moorhead, Lauren A. Maggio, Kaylee Fagan, Juan Pablo Alperin
This qualitative study explores how and why journalists use preprints—unreviewed research papers—in their reporting. Through thematic analysis of interviews conducted with 19 health and science journalists in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it applies a theoretical framework that conceptualizes COVID-19 preprint research as a form of post-normal science, characterized by high scientific uncertainty and societal relevance, urgent need for political decision-making, and value-related policy considerations.
Findings suggest that journalists approach the decision to cover preprints as a careful calculation, in which the potential public benefits and the ease of access preprints provided were weighed against risks of spreading misinformation.
Journalists described viewing unreviewed studies with extra skepticism and relied on diverse strategies to find, vet, and report on them. Some of these strategies represent standard science journalism, while others, such as labeling unreviewed studies as preprints, mark a departure from the norm. However, journalists also reported barriers to covering preprints, as many felt they lacked the expertise or the time required to fully understand or vet the research.
The findings suggest that coverage of preprints is likely to continue post-pandemic, with important implications for scientists, journalists, and the publics who read their work.