The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientific research in the life sciences

Authors: Massimo Riccaboni and Luca Verginer

PLOS ONE (2022)


The COVID-19 outbreak has posed an unprecedented challenge to humanity and science. On the one side, public and private incentives have been put in place to promptly allocate resources toward research areas strictly related to the COVID-19 emergency. However, research in many fields not directly related to the pandemic has been displaced. In this paper, we assess the impact of COVID-19 on world scientific production in the life sciences and find indications that the usage of medical subject headings (MeSH) has changed following the outbreak. We estimate through a difference-in-differences approach the impact of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientific production using the PubMed database (3.6 Million research papers). We find that COVID-19-related MeSH terms have experienced a 6.5 fold increase in output on average, while publications on unrelated MeSH terms dropped by 10 to 12%. The publication weighted impact has an even more pronounced negative effect (-16% to -19%). Moreover, COVID-19 has displaced clinical trial publications (-24%) and diverted grants from research areas not closely related to COVID-19. Note that since COVID-19 publications may have been fast-tracked, the sudden surge in COVID-19 publications might be driven by editorial policy.