He [Dr. Eric Rubin, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine] and other scientists said the issue of speed was particularly important for clinical research during the pandemic because doctors needed the most up-to-date information to make life-saving decisions for critically ill patients. For example, the large trial of the steroid dexamethasone — which first demonstrated that this cheap, widely available drug could reduce the likelihood of death in COVID-19 patients — was originally posted as a preprint. It would show up, traditionally published, in the New England Journal of Medicine eight months later, but the preprint made it possible to get that knowledge into doctors’ hands faster. “I had one MD who contacted me, and he said, ‘You know, there are probably people who are alive today who would have been dead if not for preprints,’” [Richard] Sever [the co-founder of bioRxiv and medRxiv] said.
Processes like that have contributed to making preprints more widely accepted among biological and medical scientists. It also helps that research in preprints isn’t a lot different statistically from how those same papers eventually end up being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. A 2020 study of pre-COVID-19 bioscience that compared preprint papers and their later, peer-reviewed versions, for example, found that the biggest differences were in details like how clearly the title reflected the conclusions or how easy it was to find relevant information in the article.
But that should be understood as a critique of the peer-review process rather than a glowing endorsement of preprint paper accuracy, said Alice Fleerackers, a graduate student and researcher at the Scholarly Communications Lab, a joint project of the Simon Fraser University and University of Ottawa. “There’s really a perception that peer review is a trustworthy quality-control mechanism,” Fleerackers said. But research hasn’t been able to support that idea. All the jokes and paranoia about COVID-19 being spread by 5G cellphone technology, for instance, trace their origin to a paper published in — and later retracted by — a scientific journal that claims to peer-review its content.