Research in the era of COVID19: A Gentle Reminder

by Maryann Wei, August 2020

The global health emergency caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, known colloquially as COVID19, since late 2019 has resulted in calls for COVID19-related topics to be prioritised in research to inform the public health response to the pandemic. Acting on the urgent need for research (and to some extent, social responsibility), many leading cross-disciplinary journals have offered publication fee waivers for research papers covering a COVID19-related topic in any field, including but not limited to chemistry, biology, medicine, economics, and psychology. Further, in many (if not all) of these cases, the open-access fee additional to the cost of publication is also relinquished.

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The prospect of being published open access in a prestigious journal without invoking a hefty bill is, undeniably, extremely attractive. It is not unreasonable, and perhaps understandable, that many researchers without  any prior interests in such research would jump at this window of opportunity and develop a study for this purpose. This is not to say a genuine desire to contribute to science is not involved; rather, the scientific agenda (and motivation for developing a COVID19-related study) may understandably be preceded by the attractive prospect of getting published open-access in a prestigious journal on a pro bono basis.

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In the field of health psychology, and psychology more broadly, the task of pinning down a novel topic on which to develop a relevant study is inherently easier compared to physical science fields, and may not even necessitate having to leave one’s desk. The COVID19 pandemic essentially offers a novel variant of every existing conditions: for example, anxiety, depression, loneliness, disrupted eating patterns, and substance abuse each constitute a new psychological construct when tagged with a preceding “COVID19-related” specifier. Previously conducted studies on risk and resilience factors for these conditions can simply be tweaked to be worded within the COVID19 timeframe to obtain data which can be written up as a new study. An informal search through online communities designated for discussions around COVID19 (e.g. sub-Reddits such as r/Coronavirus) reveals a torrent of ongoing research along these lines, the sheer volume indicating a strong motivation for COVID19-related investigations among researchers in the field of psychology.

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It is too early to comment on the cumulative utility of these findings, whether for practitioners, the scientific community, or the general public. However, it may be timely to raise a gentle reminder that the relative ease of pinning down novel COVID19-related topics in psychology (towards the attractive prospect of getting published gratis in a leading journal) should not involve a trade-off of meaningful research. High-quality studies require time and effort to design, execute, and report; such studies need to be fronted and not seconded by a genuine desire to contribute to science, and are necessary towards alleviating, or at least preventing the exacerbation of, the long-lamented limited applicability of psychological research findings in the real world.

About the author

Maryann Wei is in her final stages of her PhD candidature at the University of Wollongong. She is passionate about psychological research, philosophy of science, and finding ways to reconcile the two.

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