Cooperative science in a time of crisis

Jay J. Van Bavel (New York University) & Robb Willer (Stanford University)

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This is a story of a global pandemic, two Tweets, and a paper with dozens of authors written in one week. On March 11, Robb posted a comment on Twitter inviting social and behavioral scientists to share any relevant research that might help to understand and address the growing pandemic. Within a few hours, Jay sent a private message to Robb asking if he had any interest in putting together a paper on the social and behavioural science behind these issues. The initial goal was to invite 20-30 experts from around the globe who could help curate relevant scientific knowledge on topics like risk perception, leadership, science communication, morality, cooperation, social & cultural barriers, and social isolation.  

The next day, we noticed another Tweet from Nature Human Behaviour inviting submissions related to COVID19. Jay immediately emailed the journal offering to submit a paper “in one week” if they were interested. Within an hour, the Chief Editor, Stavroula Kousta, responded with a formal invitation. This led to an intensive search for potential authors who we knew could cover a diversity of topics with the level of expertise to write a section within a couple days. We sent out an invitation and the vast majority of people not only agreed to join, but delivered short, well-written article sections within 48 hours. As sections came in, we quickly sent comments, structured the paper, and drafted the introduction and discussion.  

The level of difficulty increased when -- shortly after agreeing to draft the full  paper in a week -- both of our universities and kids’ schools were shut down. This forced us, along with many of our co-authors, to quickly adapt on multiple fronts. This meant taking care of young children, setting up home schooling for our kids, and learning to deliver our classes online. Some of our authors were from pandemic hotspots, like China, Italy, and New York. Others were dealing with sick family members or becoming ill themselves. Despite the growing stress and chaos, everyone chipped in and delivered their promised sections on time. A week after first emailing the initial author list, we submitted the paper. 

While the paper was under review, we posted a preprint online and shared our paper on Social Media. Within hours we started receiving comments and critiques from our peers. The Editorial team lined up reviewers in advance of receiving our paper and moved rapidly. In a week, we received a “revise and resubmit” decision, six peer review reports, and a lengthy editorial letter to help guide our revisions. We invited five more authors with complementary expertise to join us, and passed along the reviews to our team of co-authors who self-organized to address each issue raised by the reviewers. After several days, Dr. Kousta reached out to us and offered to clarify remaining points so that we could complete the reviews swiftly. As we completed the reviews, we added her to the same google document we were all editing, which allowed her to provide line item comments and dig into our references to ensure accuracy and nuance of the text. It added a level of additional rigor to the revisions while helping make the paper ready for publication much more swiftly.

One might assume free-rider problems would dog a team of more than 40 authors, working during one of the most disorienting and busy times of their lives. On the contrary, the level of cooperation and commitment among the team was outstanding. As we stole moments late at night to work on the paper, we would see co-authors around the world working on the document with us. People contributed well beyond their sections, helping with general revisions on references, and anything else we requested. 

The speed of the process was also, for us, completely unprecedented. In our fields papers can take years to write, and reviews can take 6 months, often iterating across multiple rounds. From idea to acceptance, this paper was completed in 29 days. Our paper, Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response, appeared in Nature Human Behaviour, last week. In our experience, it embodied the ideal of cooperation that is too often missing from science.

Go to the profile of Jay Van Bavel

Jay Van Bavel

Associate Professor, New York University

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