Today marks two years since Nature published its first paper related to what we now know as SARS-CoV-2. The paper was particularly significant: it described the genome sequence of a virus associated with the respiratory disease outbreak in China, isolated from a patient. The authors who brought that vital work to our pages also openly shared the underlying data with the research community, changing the course of what the WHO was to declare as a pandemic just a month later. The genome sequence was the first step on the road to learning about the biology of this new virus and a key prerequisite to solving the structure of the viral particles, itself the key to developing vaccines and therapeutics.
The teams at Nature and its sister journals have now published nearly four thousand research papers relating to SARS-CoV2, COVID-19 and associated subjects. The papers we’ve published are only a subset of the many thousands of submissions we received on this topic, as different research communities around the world pivoted their research focus to address the global emergency posed by COVID-19. Assessing them all involved dedication, domain expertise and professionalism on the part of our in-house research editors:
Every submission needed to be closely read to evaluate the insights it reported and to check for their robustness. Those that passed this initial editorial threshold were assessed by expert peer reviewers carefully selected by our editors using their in-depth knowledge of the relevant research communities. Our editors worked closely with the authors, providing guidance as they revised their manuscripts. With rapid data sharing being of particular importance during the pandemic, we also provided research data support to help authors manage their data effectively.
Just as many researchers redirected their focus towards studying COVID-19, many of our editors who ordinarily would not have been involved in assessing such papers have stepped in to help, harnessing transferable expertise in modelling, big data analysis, translational medicine, social science and other relevant subjects.
During a pandemic knowledge needs to be shared quickly. We proactively encouraged authors to deposit their work in a preprint server. Although this has been something we have supported for decades, we believed that it was a particular priority that COVID-19-related research be available on preprint servers at the point of submission to us so new findings could be openly examined straight away. We also built an agreement with the WHO to share with them every submission we received to help them track emerging research.
We've worked very hard to make the time from submission to making the peer-reviewed research publicly available to everyone as short as possible. Our publishing colleagues - whose work makes these papers as readable to the widest audience as possible and discoverable on the many platforms and services that researchers use - also stepped on the accelerator pedal. Our resolve met a particular challenge when in December last year, research on Omicron, the newest variant of concern, started coming in. Just as many were preparing for a break, 23rd December saw the online publication of five of such research papers on the same day that they were accepted by Nature.
Right from the start we made all of our COVID-19 research papers free to read and, by press releasing more than 150 articles, have reached global audiences through tens of thousands of news articles in high profile outlets. As I write this, we continue to have a strong focus on Omicron-related research and are press releasing and publishing these papers in a matter of 24-48 hrs post-acceptance.
And of course we don’t just leave the journalistic coverage of the pandemic to others. We recognise our responsibility when it comes to supporting public understanding of science, one of the cornerstones on which Nature was founded. The journalism in Nature, and other Nature portfolio titles such as Nature Medicine, has played a significant role in our response to the pandemic and in aiding scientists’, governments’ and the public’s understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and the pandemic. Nature has published more than 700 news stories and expert-authored commentaries, which have been viewed by millions and continue to be actively discussed on social media.
In our commitment to aid people’s understanding of the pandemic, we’ve also harnessed the skills of our art editors and data-focused journalists to provide graphical updates, for which we won two prestigious awards: for an infographic explaining vaccine design and an editorial illustration award for a series on Science after the pandemic. And our Nature podcast team launched an award-winning COVID-dedicated podcast, Coronapod, to bring the latest insights to a broad audience. We’ve always known the value of in-depth, quality journalism and it has been heartening to see the growing demand for it throughout the pandemic.
We’ve all lived through extraordinary two years, with everyone including researchers, reviewers, editors and of course health workers and care-givers, working and living under strain. We will continue to support researchers in communicating their most important research to the widest possible audience, be it through our research publishing or our journalism. And we will continue to remind governments and decision makers that there is only one way out of a global crisis such as this pandemic, and that’s by placing science at the heart of our decision making.