The Covid-19 pandemic compelled governments around the world to place heightened expectations on science and medicine. And since the pandemic began in March 2020, the speed of research publishing has accelerated markedly, with vaccines and treatments now arriving on the market in months rather than years or even decades. But this acceleration has also spurred questions and concerns, both for the public and for scientists, especially as unfounded attacks on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines was dragged into a contentious political battle.

Earlier this year, Elsevier launched a global collaboration to understand the impact of the pandemic on confidence in research and to learn how researchers may better maneuver in a rapidly changing scientific landscape. The Confidence in Research report, which was released this week, delivered some sobering news, showing that researchers today increasingly must work to combat false and misleading information as well as growing instances of online abuse.

“The process of science is essentially messy by its nature,” explained Anne Kitson, senior vice president and managing director of The Lancet and Cell Press and a leader of the Confidence in Research project, in a recent interview for the Copyright Clearance Center podcast series, Velocity of Content. “Researchers sometimes get things wrong, but they like that. It helps them with their investigations. Continuous self-correction is an integral part of scientific progression. However, at times, science didn’t do a good job around explaining changes through the course of the pandemic. So we do need to be self-critical.”

While science advances by trial and error, public officials and many in the media today are demanding certainty. And the greater scrutiny of scientific research prompted by Covid-19 is having an impact on researchers on their work, Kitson said. “We observed that this is leading some to report good practice in conducting and communicating research," Kitson said. But it is also prompting "concerns" as researchers are feeling the need to more responsive to public reactions, Kitson said.

The Confidence in Research report is based on an ambitious global survey conducted by The Economist Impact, and the collaboration was guided by an international advisory board that includes researchers, policymaker organizations, editors of academic journals, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Over the last several months, the Confidence in Research initiative convened roundtable sessions with regional partners Research!America in the U.S., Sense about Science in the UK, the Körber Foundation in Germany as well as the China Association for Science and Technology Policy.

So, is there a crisis of confidence in scientific research in the wake of the pandemic?

“I believe labeling it as a crisis is overstating things, but there are some growing strong challenges it’s incumbent on all of us to address together,” Kitson said. “While researchers seem to feel confident in talking about the design of their experiments and the methodology, the challenge some of them are mentioning is how to communicate about the science itself [and] how to position their research. How do they explain preliminary findings? How do they fit with the bigger picture [of science] and about future research directions? Researchers are asking for more help on this.”

Kitson said she expects the public and professional attention on research and researchers to change the conduct of science in at least one significant way: incentivizing researcher communities across the world to make their research reporting as transparent and as accessible as possible.

“Transparency, transparency, transparency,” Kitson said. “I think there’s a real hunger and will that we can harness. What we need to do is to aim for consistency and cooperation across the board. What we saw in the pandemic, of course, was that the virus does not respect country boundaries.”

Christopher Kenneally hosts the Velocity of Content podcast from Copyright Clearance Center.