Communicating scientific uncertainty during COVID-19 Investigating the use of preprint research by digital media outlets

Author: Alice Fleerackers – Scholarly Communications Lab, Simon Fraser University, Canada


  • Rukhsana Ahmed – Department of Communication University at Albany, State University of New York, United States
  • Juan Pablo Alperin – School of Publishing, Simon Fraser University, Canada
  • Laura Moorhead – Journalism, College of Liberal & Creative Arts San Francisco State University, United States
  • Michelle Riedlinger – School of Communication, Queensland University, Australia

This presentation focuses on the surge in media coverage of COVID-19-related preprint research and the varied approaches digital media outlets used to communicate this uncertain science. Preprints are generally recognised by the scientific community as unvalidated and preliminary, and journalists have been reluctant to cover them because of the associated scientific uncertainty. Yet, COVID-19 seems to be transforming this tendency; uploads of COVID-19 preprints surged in the first months of the pandemic, and their uptake in online media outstripped that of preprints about any other topic. Drawing on literature from digital journalism and science communication, we used an innovative approach combining altmetrics methods with content analysis to identify a diversity of media outlets that covered COVID-19-related preprints during the first four months of the pandemic. These outlets included specialist medical news outlets, traditional news media outlets and aggregators. They often used hyperlinks as citations, with over 90% of stories including a hyperlink to at least one preprint. Devices emphasising scientific uncertainty were rarely used consistently (e.g. mentioning that the study was a preprint, unreviewed, preliminary, and/or in need of verification). Less than half of the stories we analysed contained framing devices emphasising uncertainty, and few identified the research they mentioned as preprint research. Across outlets, “science communication” stories—that is, stories focused on communicating the results or implications of a particular COVID-19-related preprint—were more likely to portray that preprint as uncertain compared to stories using preprints for other purposes (e.g., to cover a wider issue, to support an argument). While evaluating the certainty of scientific findings can be challenging for readers without a science background, readers can at least understand whether research is established or preliminary with the help of editorial framing devices. This seems especially important for global issues with such local and personal relevance as COVID-19.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Transformation