The early days of the pandemic were marked with so many unknowns. How can we reliably detect SARS-CoV-2 infection? Do patients have immunity following recovery from infection, and if so, how long does immunity last? What measures can be taken to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 while at work? Is it safe to go to the grocery store, to a restaurant, to school? In the face of so many unknowns, labs geared up for the testing challenge of a lifetime while dealing with shortages of personal protective equipment and other supplies.

The implications of the shutdown of businesses, the move to telemedicine, and a halt of elective procedures were dire and unsustainable for any length of time. Quick action was needed, but how could we know what the best, most effective interventions would be? We turned to trusted sources of scientific knowledge from those who had experience, contained in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. As experience with COVID-19 grew, the floodgates opened as submissions to journals intensified in a race to disseminate knowledge across the globe to save lives.

Wednesday’s plenary session featured Holden Thorp, PhD, the editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals. He shared his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic in a presentation titled, “Curating and Documenting Research During Chaos: Lessons from COVID-19 and Beyond.”

Thorp told the story of how he formed a team at Science to manage the deluge of manuscripts that inundated them in the first months of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. To deal with this surge, the team relied on a network of peer reviewers who rendered decisions as quickly as possible, sometimes within days of submission. The goal he set was to publish manuscripts that would help society or influence policy while maintaining high scientific integrity—with conclusions that would stand the test of time.

The result was more than 4,000 scientific and 2,000 insight manuscripts about COVID-19 submitted in 2020. He expressed pride that there were no big retractions and that the papers held up as more information was generated. The most highly cited paper included the structure of a spike protein.

He noted the importance of disseminating scientific findings to the medical and scientific community, and the unique service Science serves in providing press releases and working with the media to disseminate information to influence policy makers and the public. The goal, of course, was to mitigate the impact of the pandemic crisis, but Thorp admitted that this is not what happened. He expressed concern that public confidence in the medical and scientific community is on shaky ground. There are many contributors to this issue, including a lack of understanding that science works as a self-correcting process and evolves with time. In addition, too often politicians and news media personalities outcompete scientists in their communications, Thorp said.

In the meet-the-expert session after his plenary, Thorp shared how scientists may need to get more comfortable with communicating a single, simple message without all the caveats scientists often include. The audience observed that a scientist could be elevated by those in the community who possess the ability to speak clearly and effectively with a wide range of audiences. Whether you agree or disagree with everything Thorp shared, one thing is certain: He left us all with many things to ponder.