Open science, COVID-19, and the news: Exploring controversies in the circulation of early SARS-CoV-2 genomic epidemiology research

Stephen Molldrem, Mustafa I. Hussain, Anthony K.J. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations

Abstract

Some early English language news coverage of COVID-19 epidemiology focused on studies that examined how SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) was evolving at the genetic level. The use of phylogenetic methods to analyse pathogen genetic sequence data to understand disease dynamics is called ‘molecular’ or ‘genomic’ epidemiology. Many research groups in this subfield utilise open science practices, which can involve the circulation of early unreviewed findings on publicly-accessible venues online. From March to May 2020, media outlets covered early SARS-CoV-2 genomic studies that claimed to have discovered types of SARS-CoV-2 that had mutated to be more transmissible. We use methods from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to examine three cumulative cases in which unripe facts about SARS-CoV-2 genomics moved out of scientific publics and into mainstream news. The three cases are: (1) ‘A More “Aggressive” Strain of SARS-CoV-2?’, (2) ‘Eight SARS-CoV-2 Strains?’, and (3) ‘A “More Contagious,” “Mutant” Strain?’ In each case, findings were called into question and reporters’ framing was overly sensational. We interpret the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘stress-test’ for open science practices, and argue that it is important for stakeholders to understand changes in scientific publication and dissemination processes in the wake of the pandemic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1468-1481
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Public Health
Volume16
Issue number8-9
DOIs
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Molecular epidemiology
  • media studies
  • pathogen genomics
  • science and technology studies
  • science communication

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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