‘Science Studies’ on Covid-19: Significance of Emerging Trends

Kapil Patil
Research Associate, RIS


The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has witnessed an unprecedented mobilisation of scientific efforts to combat the spread of the virus and to mount an effective public health response to the crisis. The scientific community, in particular, has played an important role in gathering vital data about the disease, participating in crisis response teams, and communicating scientific evidence to policymakers and people at large. The pandemic has also witnessed a large number of academic publications based on clinical and epidemiological studies, and scientific evidence produced in these studies significantly contributed to mitigating the adverse impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, the pandemic has also witnessed several important studies focussing on the conduct of scientific research in times of crisis, and the ability of scientists to generate timely inputs for policymaking.  


Falling under the rubric of “science studies”, this body of scholarship has sought to critically examine issues relating to the production of scientific knowledge such as authorship patterns, publication processes, scholarly communication, research infrastructure, and so on. Science studies as an interdisciplinary domain of research seek to critically examine the processes of knowledge production and its dissemination, communication and reception among the target and general audience. The field is also unique in terms of using novel research tools like bibliometrics, scientometrics, social media and altmetrics to map the evolution of research across specialised knowledge streams and to place scientific research in a wider social context to develop an informed ‘science policy’ perspective.


In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, science studies have attracted much discussion particularly around three broad themes namely, “effect of pandemic on the conduct of scientific research”, the role of social media”, and “open science/open research”.[1] This short piece discusses the key highlights of select studies under the aforementioned themes, and their significance to bring about meaningful policy changes for the conduct of science and scientific research in times of crisis. A study by Milad Haghani has presented a scientometric comparison of academic research during major Coronavirus outbreaks such as 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the 2019 Coronavirus disease.[2] The study reported that compared to two previous outbreaks, coronavirus outbreak in 2019 saw the highest number of research publications with indexing of over 12,000 research items in Scopus within the first five months of the crisis.


Furthermore, the pandemic also saw leading medical journals to accelerate research publishing for rapidly disseminating relevant scientific knowledge. A study examining about 669 articles from 14 medical journals since the outbreak of pandemic found a shortening of publication time between submission and publication on average by 49 percent by decreasing the time required for peer review. The study, however, cautions about the integrity of the peer-review process and resulting publications.[3]


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions among the scientific communities and affected their ability to generate research output as per the policy demands. The lack of evidence on such disruptions thus called for quantifying the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on scientists and to mitigate them through specific policy interventions. A survey of approximately 4,500 principal investigators in the U.S. and Europe-based scientific institutions reported that “female scientists, those in the ‘bench sciences’ and, especially, scientists with young children experienced a substantial decline in time devoted to research” and called for addressing the impact of such disruptions on affected scientists.[4]


Similarly, a study on scientific publications has shown a widening of gender gaps due to events like a global pandemic. Based on the data gathered from over 80875 papers from biomedical preprint servers and selected high-impact Springer-Nature journals, the study reported disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on the productivity of women researchers. In particular, the study observed “an average drop of 5 percent in the proportion of female authors during the COVID-19 and a further drop of 44% for female scientists as first author positions in COVID-19 related research topics”.[5] Also, by geocoding the affiliations of authors, the study predicted gender disparities to be far greater in developing countries compared to developed countries.


The studies on the dissemination of COVID-19 related scientific publications in online media generated interesting findings. Among various online platforms such as social media portals, blogs, Wikipedia, open access publishing, citations, etc., the study found Twitter to be the “effective medium with 68 percent coverage on COVID-19 related publications”.[6] In particular, the research about vaccines and drugs was received more positively compared to other aspects of the pandemic on various platforms. The study also called for developing a specific metric to deal with the rise of misinformation and fake news on social media during the pandemic. 


The COVID pandemic has also pushed the frontiers of open science with the scientific community around the world working together to gather, analyse and distribute data on coronavirus hazard. The studies on open science, nevertheless, also point to the difficulties in developing scientific collaborations and efficient use data for finding pandemic related solutions.[7] Finally, the studies have also called for developing intelligent information access tools to covert scientific knowledge embedded in written texts into machine-actionable links and graph nodes etc. The Open Research Knowledge Graph (ORKG) is one such tool that makes it easier to use scientific knowledge by ingesting information in scholarly articles as knowledge graphs.[8]


From the discussion so far, it is evident that COVID-19 pandemic has brought about several lasting changes in the conduct of science, and the access to and use of scientific data for effective public response to the crisis. It, however, also points to the need for assessing the contribution of pandemic-related scientific research from global South. Understanding the patterns of research collaborations and data sharing can be useful for decreasing the knowledge gap between countries of North and South and coordinating a global response. Fostering science studies in the context of the global south can go a long way research in building valuable knowledge capacities and fill the epistemic void in evidence-based policymaking. 


[1] The Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University and the TIB Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology jointly organised a webinar on the theme "Doing science in times of crisis: Science studies perspectives on COVID-19" on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. The webinar brought together a group of scholars from science studies community and presented findings on science studies research endeavours.


[2] Haghani, M., & Bliemer, M. C. (2020). Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented mobilisation of scholarly efforts prompted by a health crisis: Scientometric comparisons across SARS, MERS and 2019-nCov literature. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.00674.


[3] Horbach, S. P. (2020). Pandemic Publishing: Medical journals strongly speed up their publication process for Covid-19. Quantitative Science Studies1(3), 1056-1067.

[4] Myers, K.R., Tham, W.Y., Yin, Y. et al. Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. Nat Hum Behav 4, 880–883 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0921-y.


[5] Muric, G., Lerman, K., & Ferrara, E. (2020). COVID-19 amplifies gender disparities in research. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.06142.


[6] Costas et al. 2020. Monitoring the dissemination of COVID-19-related scientific publications in online media. Leiden ladtrics. June 23, 2020. Retrieved from https://leidenmadtrics.nl/articles/monitoring-the-dissemination-of-covid-19-related-scientific-publications-in-online-media.   


[7] Homolak, J., Kodvanj, I. & Virag, D. Preliminary analysis of COVID-19 academic information patterns: a call for open science in the times of closed borders. Scientometrics 124, 2687–2701 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-020-03587-2


[8] Anteghini, M., D'Souza, J., Santos, V. A., & Auer, S. (2020). Representing Semantified Biological Assays in the Open Research Knowledge Graph. arXiv preprint arXiv:2009.07642.



Popular posts from this blog

Union Budget of Healthcare 2021: Interlinking All Aspects of Health

A Monthly Round up of G20 Themes

A European Approach to Regulate Artificial Intelligence: Possible Global Impact