All eyes are on Brazil. The Olympics are around the corner and we will watch athletes from 207 countries come together to compete. However, the Olympic Games will not be the only event on everyone’s mind.

The Zika virus outbreak in Brazil has become a growing concern, especially with the anticipation of 500,000 visitors expected to travel from all over the world to attend the Games. Little is known about this virus and government health officials are depending on scientific researchers to learn more about Zika before one of the world’s largest events takes place. However, the need to rapidly publish Zika findings is having an interesting effect on how scientific research is reported.

In an institution like Science where job stability and promotion are strongly tied to publication status, Zika virus is breaking boundaries and shaking up the publication game. In early February the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus threat to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” Now more than ever, it is necessary for researchers to rapidly report their Zika data so public health officials can implement measures to control viral spread and protect the lives of those most at risk.

Prior to the 2015 epidemic, there were only 250 scientific journal publications on Zika. By comparison, Dengue, a virus that causes a related tropical disease has about 19,000 scientific publications. With outbreaks spreading quickly across the Southern Hemisphere, many virology labs are shifting their focus to Zika and speeding up reporting of their data by publishing in preprint forums, rather than waiting to have their research accepted for academic journal publication.

Typically when data is collected, scientists will submit their findings to an academic journal, the report will go through an in-depth peer review process, and the article will be reviewed for formatting quality (type-setting, editing, layout, and more). When the research is finally accepted, other scientists can access it by paying a fee to the journal publishers. On average, this process lasts about 100 days from submission to acceptance. Alternatively, research submitted to online preprint forums is accessible at least 24 hours after submission.

Preprint forums, such as bioRxiv and arXiv are free to access, eliminate the formatting quality review, and allow for professional and public peer review post-publication. These forums have become particularly important to the study of Zika as they allow data to be accessible immediately and to a wider audience, not just to those that can afford to pay the academic journal fees. Now preprint platforms have reported hundreds of new Zika findings on vaccine strategies, disease outcomes, and methods to control spread in just one year.

While preprint forums have existed for over 20 years and are commonly used in the fields of physics, mathematics and computer science, their use in the life sciences field is only recently gaining traction. This late arrival can be attributed to a number of reasons ranging from the culture and tradition of respecting publications in high impact academic journals to the prohibition of research previously published elsewhere. However the life sciences are evolving. Scientists are interested in disseminating and acquiring information quicker and advancing their research faster. With that, the preprint movement is gaining momentum.

To speed up the flow of information, many preprint forums, publishing companies, and funding organizations within the scientific community have signed a joint declaration regarding data sharing in the midst of a public health crisis, such as the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

Publishers such as Nature, Science, and the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as funding organizations like the US National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have signed on to this declaration along with more than 30 others. Organizations that sign on to the declaration pledge to provide free access to all content concerning Zika and encourage preprint of Zika-related data prior to journal publication. This declaration effectively recognizes the crucial role of preprint forums in disseminating information as quickly and as widely as possible, thus allowing public health officials all over the world to begin making critical decisions for the safety of their citizens.

Zika virus has given life to the preprint movement, but should this be limited to the Zika outbreak? If preprint forums can help scientists develop faster Zika disease control, preventive measures, and treatments, why can’t they help the research community speed up studies of heart disease, breast cancer, or diabetes? Research is only as good as how it is applied, and the faster it is reported, the faster it can be translated into vaccines and drugs. With that, it may be time to consider preprint forums as a necessary path to facilitate faster progress and innovation in all biomedical fields and not just in response to the Zika outbreak.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr

About The Author

Amy Hafez is a PhD graduate student in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology program at Duke University where she studies Epstein-Barr virus and its interaction with the human host. She also holds a Master of Science in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University.