Scientists, like everyone else, have had to adapt creatively to the pandemic this year—whether by making labs out of their laundry rooms or quickly pivoting their research to SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes. In late October, journal publisher Frontiers reported results from a survey that asked those researchers how the pandemic has affected their lives. Based on data collected in May and June from 25,307 participants worldwide, the findings offer insight into scientists’ working conditions in the time of COVID-19, their attitudes to how scientific findings should be shared, and their biggest concerns for the future.
The Scientist spoke to Frontiers’s marketing and communications director Chantelle Rijs, who led the study along with executive editor Frederick Fenter, to learn more about the survey and its findings.
TS: Why did Frontiers want to do this survey of researchers?
Chantelle Rijs: We are all very passionate about science and we are very passionate about the role that science plays in society. . . . It’s the science that’s going to help us get out of this crisis. So it was imperative for us to give our community, the scientists, a voice during this incredibly challenging time, especially when they are under such extraordinary pressure to provide answers.
Twenty percent of researchers reported that their worlds had completely changed and that they are now no longer able to do their work.
TS: Can you tell me about who took part in your survey?
CR: The participants are all members of the Frontiers community. Our community is made up of active researchers who have either published their research with us or sit on one of our editorial boards as an editor or a reviewer. A hundred and fifty-two countries are represented in the study, but it represents our network, not necessarily the wider scientific community.
We have around six hundred thousand authors and one hundred thousand editors and reviewers. The majority of them come from the US and Europe, so we were not surprised to see the highest number of responses coming from those particular regions. . . . In total, we had over twenty-five thousand academics who participated. From what we can tell, this is one of the largest academic surveys that has been conducted. I think this is indicative of the fact that the scientists themselves want to be heard, and we were very happy to be able to provide them that platform.
TS: What did you learn about how researchers’ day-to-day lives have been affected this year?
CR: So, twenty percent of researchers reported that their worlds had completely changed and that they are now no longer able to do their work. South American countries appeared to be the hardest hit by this—almost a third of respondents in Argentina, Chile, Brazil all said they were no longer able to perform their job function.
However, despite this massive disruption to our lives, the majority of the research community has been resolute. We’ve had seventy percent of researchers saying they’re able to continue with their research, even if from home, and ten percent saying that they’ve been completely unaffected by the pandemic.
Writing papers for publication was the most common task—also unsurprising, considering they’re now out of the lab and in their home offices. It’s something that we felt at Frontiers as well—we saw a sudden increase in manuscript submissions over this time.
But I think more importantly, it really was very encouraging for us, and it gave us a sense of hope that the research community is able to remain resilient during times like this, especially with new waves of COVID sweeping across the world right now.
The percentage of respondents (in a sampling of countries) who responded that they were “no longer able to perform my work, or my role has changed completely” in answer to the question, “How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way you work?”
TS: That increase in papers you mentioned—was it on a particular topic?
CR: It was on coronavirus. We had around six thousand submissions on COVID papers alone.
TS: There’s been a lot of debate about open science. What did your survey reveal about scientists’ attitudes towards data sharing and open science, and how those attitudes might have changed this year?
CR: I think that the pandemic has encouraged many to reconsider how they share their work, with researchers saying that they are now more likely to publish open access, they are more likely to share their data, and they are more likely to start using something like a preprint server as a result of COVID-19. We saw that PhD students and medical professionals were the two groups who were the biggest supporters of open science and data sharing.
There is concern about the covidization of research funding—that it all gets funneled into COVID research at the neglect and at the expense of other key areas.
But we also saw other publishers make all of their coronavirus research open and accessible as soon as the pandemic hit. So our question is: What about their oncology research, or their research into dementia or Alzheimer’s? It’s very obvious to us that all research needs to be open access, not just coronavirus research. It will be interesting to see whether these paywalls are reinstated in time, or whether they’ll decide to unlock research in other areas.
TS: A few parts of the survey asked researchers to think about what’s going to happen later in the pandemic and after the pandemic. What were some of the biggest concerns that scientists had for the future?
CR: The results showed that researchers are pragmatically considering how to prepare for and mitigate future crises. Their biggest concern is the threat of a future pandemic—again, unsurprising given that the questions were asked right in the midst of the first wave. They warned about the danger of new viruses, vector-borne diseases, bacterial diseases arising from antibiotic resistance. Here, they stressed the importance of learning from our current situation to prepare for any future threats that might arise.
The second-biggest concern was climate change. And here they drew parallels between the immediate actions taken to mitigate COVID-19 and the kind of action needed to tackle environmental threats.
There’s concern that funding is being redirected away from their areas of research. One of my colleagues commented that scientists are always going to say they’re worried about funding . . . . But yes, there is concern about the covidization of research funding—that it all gets funneled into COVID research at the neglect and at the expense of other key areas.
Percentages of respondents who mentioned particular subjects in response to the question, “What future threats could be prevented if we prepare for them properly?” Frontiers analyzed text responses using an algorithm that identified keywords and themes; each person’s response could be categorized in more than one theme.
TS: These data were collected in May and June. Are there things you expect to have changed since then, and are you collecting more data?
CR: We’re definitely considering doing another one next year. Just this week alone, there are lots of reports coming out . . . around vaccine development. The efficacy of those vaccines will dictate to a certain extent how we’re all living and working, and the concerns that we have, in the future. It will be very interesting to see where we are in six to twelve months’ time, and if we still have those same concerns.
I’m not sure we’ll do such a big survey again. We had around twenty questions and we also asked them information about their field of study, location, et cetera. . . . Maybe a smaller subset of that, focusing on key areas, rather than a big extensive survey like the one we just conducted. It would allow us to get the results out quicker as well—to collate twenty-five thousand survey results is very time intensive.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.