Surprising Trends in Chemistry Research During COVID-19 - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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Surprising Trends in Chemistry Research During COVID-19

It’s mid-September, and for most of 2020, we’ve weathered a pandemic that has altered the way we live in so many ways. At times, we’ve shuttered schools, restaurants, research labs, and non-essential manufacturers around the globe. Almost all of our daily activities have changed in some way.  Now that most of the world has learned to live with and manage COVID-19, we’re experiencing the autumn start of school and the return to in-person learning. With most primary research originating in academia, I wondered what—if any— impact publishing has experienced due to the abrupt closures we faced early in the year and the months of uncertainty that followed. One may expect publishing output to have declined, but that couldn’t be farther from reality.

In fact, ACS Publications set a record for the most articles published in the month of July, breaking the previous record set only three months earlier in April. So what’s behind this upswing in research? I spoke with ACS Publisher Dr. Anirban Mahapatra to see if I could learn more. When asked about the factors influencing our increased journal output during a pandemic, Dr. Mahapatra said, “It seems as if people have focused on writing up research results while time in the lab was limited. Many researchers may be sitting on a treasure trove of unpublished work. It’s quite possible that our summer output is due in part to some researchers simply having more time for analysis and composition. Of course, for others, there are many more responsibilities at home, so we do need to be careful before generalizing.”

I asked Dr. Mahapatra if he’d noticed any particular topics or journals receiving more submissions than usual, and if there was any possibility that our increase in content was due to virus- or COVID-related research. “Sure, we’re seeing more virus-related research, but our increases are across the board,” he said. It is worth noting, ACS’s directly COVID-related research is being made freely available here and is a modest number of articles compared with our entire portfolio.

He added that “we are seeing a good deal of materials science content, noting that over the past few years, the amount of top-quality materials science content we receive has exploded and this may be a continuation of that trend.” This longer-term growth is evidenced by the expansion of our suite of materials science journals, including titles dedicated to the most critical advances (ACS Materials Letters), perspectives in the field (Accounts of Materials Letters), and various materials science sub-disciplines.

When asked if any other factors might be helping materials science research to thrive in the time of COVID-19, Dr. Mahapatra noted that, in his experience and casual observation, we are receiving an increasing volume of materials sciences advances from Asia, China in particular. In Asia, activities shut down very tightly early in the year, but factories and labs returned to full capacity quickly. Throughout the rest of the world, the shutdown came later, and many academic research labs in the U.S. are still not back to business as usual.

I wondered if any of Dr. Mahapatra’s observations would show in our submission data or if I could find any evidence that China’s being back in the lab sooner played any part in the upswing in publications we were noticing. I turned to Josh Moyer and Dr. Jody Plank, part of our data and analytics teams, who were kind enough to provide me with some raw and preliminary data.

What I found was quite interesting, but first, some caveats. What I had was preliminary data. I did not complete any formal, statistically significant analyses. Instead, I informally tabulated the data and looked casually for any time-related trends with regard to region, subject of the articles, or even journal title.

Impact on Subject Areas

We track the approximate subject areas of accepted articles by assigning each to at least one of more than 1,500 standardized subject areas. A first look at this data shows that key subject areas were changing, confirmed our hypothesis: materials science content makes up a considerable portion of ACS Publications’ growth. This trend was most pronounced in July, when topic areas related to materials science made up at least 22% of the above-normal publication volume for that month.

Bear in mind that materials science research is difficult to track because it is often intertwined with other disciplines and research areas. The subject areas showing the greatest increase included “layers,” “organic polymers,” and the blanket term “materials.” Journal-related trends offered further support, with three of our materials science journals contributing to the highest percent increase in submission volume.

There was another unexpected subject area that stood out above materials science in terms of influencing our record-breaking summer. The three subject areas that contributed the most to our above-normal volume of accepted manuscripts in July were “students,” “teaching and learning methods,” and “testing and assessment.” These three subject areas alone made up 24% of our above-normal growth in publications.

In aggregate, acceptance of articles associated with education-related topics jumped 285% above average for the month of July. When I look at a sampling of the actual articles, it appears that one way our author community is coping during COVID is by publishing the ways in which they were adapting to the new teaching environment and circumstances where in-person learning and research cannot be performed. It is worth noting that science education is rooted in ACS’s core values and found throughout society materials, including our books, journals, and news.

Geographic Influence

ACS Publications operates globally. Our readers, authors, editors, reviewers, and subscribers are dispersed around the world. Did an author’s location have an effect because of differing lockdown timing and severity, as we’d predicted?

China, where COVID-19 was first discovered in December 2019, contributes nearly one-third of ACS’s total submissions and publications. Lockdown in Wuhan began in late January and the restrictions started to ease roughly 60 days later. During that period, we saw lower-than-expected submissions from China in January, directly followed by a strong and uncharacteristic uptick in submissions in February. Also, during this period, readership of ACS Publications articles in China was notably lower than expected from January all the way through April, which may have partially due to difficulty in accessing content from home. A return to normal, predicted readership rates occurred around May and continued to climb through July. Combining these observations leads us to speculate that researchers in China took full advantage of downtime from active research to assemble and submit manuscripts in February from data they’d already accumulated.

In the United States and Europe, we observed similar but lagging trends. Submissions from these countries were well above expected levels starting in April following the shutdown of many academic labs in late March. Submission volume remained high all the way through June. Readership trends in the U.S. and Europe have remained strong, although there is an indication of a small, similar lagging trend to that observed in China.

With remarkable regional surges in submissions occurring in China, the US, and Europe in the months prior to July, it’s entirely possible that conditions related to COVID—such as scientists publishing prior discoveries—contributed to ACS’s record-breaking July publication volume.

What Are the Takeaways?

The world’s population is resilient and resourceful. Even the most impactful pandemic of our lifetime can’t stop the advance of science. Discovery will accelerate as long as society exists. We are all rapidly adapting to changes in education, workplace, and research. Science, our thirst for understanding and our desire to share information, continues to grow with each new obstacle. When circumstances force some of us out of the lab, we simply turn our attention to the wealth of information we’ve already accumulated and just haven’t shared yet.

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