During the first week of November 2020, I had the pleasure to participate at Hill Week next to amazing and inspiring colleagues…
Scientific research about COVID is appearing at an impressively rapid pace. Anecdotally I felt this to be the case, but if you do a little digging into search term outputs from PubMed, it turns out the numbers are staggering. In Figure 1, I’ve detailed the number of results for PubMed searches for ‘tuberculosis,’ an infectious disease that has been with humans for centuries (and remains a persistent problem, therefore likely to have a steady research output, (Panel A) and the term “coronavirus” (Panel B), which has a longer history of use than SARS-CoV-2 or COVID but (obviously) has a reason to expect a jump.
You can see that for the last twenty years, “tuberculosis” outputs have totaled just under 10,000 results per year (2021 has only just begun, which is why that bar is lower). For coronavirus during the same time span, research outputs were around 100 per year until the first SARS in 2003, when the average jumps to just under 1000 per year. And then comes 2020, when we see an increase to a whopping 65,360 Pubmed results for ‘coronavirus.’ That jump in research output is why these plots needed to be on a log scale. Out of curiosity, I’ve compared our current pandemic to the 1918 influenza (Panel C), which had a spike in research output of similar magnitude, which tapers off over the subsequent years. The overall numbers speak to the major advancements in the scientific endeavor since 1918. [I’ve included the full plot for influenza at the end of this post, just because.]
It is a blessing that new knowledge has been published quickly, but how are we supposed to read it all, or even figure out which articles are worthy of our time? And how do we juggle this with the necessary reading for our actual work?
Some may be familiar with the “Red Queen Hypothesis” of pathogen/host interaction. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice runs as fast as she can to evade the Red Queen, but finds she always remains in the same place. Likewise, hosts must constantly evolve new techniques to avoid a pathogen’s own evolution of infection strategies. It occurs to me that keeping up with scientific literature can similarly feel like a never-ending process. In the course of reading one publication, you’ll click on two others it referenced, and you’ll see another cool article on Twitter, and before you know it you’ve got ten tabs open. You’re left running to keep up with the science, and you’ll never be able to fully digest all of it.
To counter-evolve my reading habits to keep pace with COVID science, a few months ago I started volunteering with the nonprofit Covid Act Now (CAN) to produce the ‘Research Rundown’ newsletter. CAN is a small, independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit run largely by volunteers, which develops and maintains a variety of COVID-related data- and evidence-based resources. CAN has been producing the ‘Daily Download’ newsletter since April 2020, which includes a daily map of COVID severity in the U.S., summaries of important news articles, and two summaries of COVID literature. However, we were creating many more summaries each day than we could fit into the newsletter. And so, the idea of a sister newsletter to house those literature summaries was born.
In the process of making the Research Rundown, a team does what one individual cannot:
- Henry Bair, an MD/MBA candidate at Stanford, uses software that searches Pubmed and medRxiv articles to find new studies about COVID. He then reviews the abstracts for relevance and impact to find the most interesting articles coming out each day. Henry tries to find a balance of pieces that address many facets of the problem presented by COVID, such as: infection, transmission, symptom management, treatments, vaccinations, and modeling/surveillance tools. Henry sources publications from PubMed searches, and summarizes around six papers every day.
- On Mondays and Wednesdays, I (a medical writer with a PhD in immunology & microbiology) review Henry’s summaries and choose six to include in each newsletter, which comes out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I keep in mind not only the summaries from a given day, but I also consider what we’ve been covering in previous newsletters in order to maintain a comprehensive coverage of the literature. Sometimes I’ll add summaries of my own if there’s a publication generating buzz that came out after Henry wrote his daily summaries. I review the summaries and add citations and links to the full publications to ensure readers can easily go read the article themselves.
- In addition to the literature summaries, we include a ‘Watch, Listen, Learn’ section in which we share podcasts, interviews, videos, or other media of note with a heavily scientific bent. I’m a firm believer in embracing the fact that people learn in many different ways, and that this sort of content is hugely beneficial to educating oneself. Many academic journals have also realized this, with the likes of NEJM regularly producing great podcasts or helpful graphics to bring new discoveries to life. Throughout the week, I keep a spreadsheet going with multimedia I’ve found enlightening about COVID, and I reach out to my colleagues at CAN when in need of additional ideas. I generally choose two per newsletter, and I try to make sure they aren’t both the same type of media (e.g., if I share an interesting Twitter thread, I’ll make sure the other choice is a video interview).
- Once I’ve finished, a colleague from CAN reads the whole thing over and serves as a very important ‘sanity check’ of the draft newsletter. Usually, the CAN content team will do this, pointing out spots where a summary could be written more clearly, or where some science/medical jargon ought to be better defined.
- Finally, our copy editor passes a fine-tooth comb through the whole newsletter, and ensures it is properly formatted to CAN’s writing standards. She also makes sure all the links are working, and raises questions when needed (e.g., What’s the correct formatting for the names of viral variants? B117? B.1.1.7.?) This step is crucial for making sure the final product is sophisticated and professional, with no grammatical or formatting errors which would distract from the important content. Once I’ve gotten the green light, I prepare the newsletter for sending out, get a test newsletter over to the content team for review, and pending any final revisions, schedule the newsletter to go out the next morning.
When I wake up the next day, I can see how many people have opened the newsletter and clicked on links. It’s been amazing to see the newsletter grow, from the initial group of 40 or so friends/colleagues who humored me by signing up, to the current list of 5,000 organic subscribers. I know the process of making the newsletter helps me stay much more informed than I might otherwise, and I hope that subscribers are also finding it useful. The science of science communication tells us that facts are best conveyed when explained by a warm and competent expert that can relate to and understand their audience. Hopefully, the Research Rundown helps subscribers keep pace with the literature a bit better, and serve as a resource for their communities; sign up here and look out for newsletters every Tuesday and Thursday. You can also subscribe to the Daily Download for further COVID updates here.