Sara Weibel

Sara Weibel

Sara Gianella Weibel, MD is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and directs the San Diego Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) Translational Virology Core. Dr. Gianella Weibel has been an Editorial Board Member at Scientific Reports since 2015 and a Senior Editorial Board Member since 2019. She talked to Madushi Wanaguru (Senior Editor at Scientific Reports) about her research interests, the COVID-19 pandemic and academic publishing.

What is your current research focused on?

My main research activities are focused on HIV. I'm very interested in HIV cure research and in understanding sex and gender differences in HIV persistence. I'm also interested in studying the effects of co-infections and chronic inflammation, and how these impact HIV persistence and other complications. My favorite study going on here in San Diego is the 'Last Gift study', where we enroll altruistic people with HIV who are terminally ill to participate in HIV cure research. We follow them during the last months of their lives to collect blood and clinical data, and subsequently we perform a rapid research autopsy to determine how HIV hides in various tissues across the human body. I am always inspired by the altruism of our study participants and their desire to 'give back' to their community.

How has your research been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Like almost everybody, our research activities have been affected by COVID-19 and the consequences that this global pandemic created in terms of both public health, and the shifts in social, working, and family practices. As a mom of three kids (7-, 10- and 13-years old), I spent a significant amount of time home-schooling them from March 2020 until April 2021. Further, the regulations at our university allowed only a limited number of people to be in the lab at any one time, and consequently some of our ongoing HIV projects progressed slower. While COVID-19 impacted our overall productivity, it also created opportunities to help. We were fortunate to be able to redirect our talents and expertise to move COVID-19 research forward and make contributions to this field.

What are the most significant challenges faced by researchers in effectively responding to public health crises such as COVID-19?

One big challenge that we have faced other than the virus itself, was the mistrust of the general public towards scientific research and researchers. Our research efforts have also been hampered by the politicization of the pandemic response and the promotion of non-scientific claims by certain quarters. The implications have been unfortunate. Ideally, public health policy should be driven by data and scientific evidence. Leaders around the world have missed opportunities to adopt mask mandates, limit gatherings, and allow businesses to operate safely. Bad COVID-19 policies, distorted bipartisanship, and politics resulted in loss of lives and jobs.

Another important challenge that we need to urgently address is the gaping disparity between rich and poor nations' access to coronavirus vaccines. In order to address this issue, we need to boost COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing globally and change the overall politics around access to vaccines.

Scientific Reports has been asking authors to deposit their COVID-19 manuscripts on a recognized preprint server in parallel with their submission to the journal. What are your thoughts on the contribution of preprints to disseminating research findings, particularly in the context of COVID-19?

One of the positive things that resulted by the COVID-19 crisis is the restructuring of the scientific community and the scientific communication landscape in particular. Researchers have been working together towards a common goal geared around sharing their findings as preprints much more than before. This has really helped move COVID-19 research forward, as data haven't been hidden until acceptance for publication by journals. This is enabling other researchers worldwide to access, analyze, and utilize this knowledge for their own studies. Preprints are also fostering collaboration, a necessity for the multidisciplinary research requirements of a pandemic.

I hope that the scientific community continues sharing research this way even after the threat of COVID-19 will not be as urgent anymore.

What sets Scientific Reports apart from other journals?

A lot of journals have a publication bias towards positive, 'interesting' research. Scientific Reports' policy of accepting a diverse set of manuscripts as long as they are technically sound and scientifically valid allows researchers to publish negative results or findings that might not be the most impactful, but which still make a contribution to overall scientific knowledge. I am a believer that every story deserves a chance to be told and I am thankful that Scientific Reports gives a home to papers that would otherwise never get published.

What's your best experience of being a Scientific Reports EBM so far?

I really enjoy being an EBM at Scientific Reports and I was thrilled to be invited to join the Senior Editorial Board. Manuscript handling can sometimes be quite challenging and particularly during the pandemic it has been very difficult to engage reviewers, but I really find the process of guiding a paper through to publication very rewarding.

How can journals encourage increased scientific rigour?

The review process is of course the most crucial. I think that including additional statistical review would be a good idea and I would like to see journals always strive to secure input from at least three reviewers for each manuscript. Trying to secure suitable reviewers can sometimes be a rather frustrating process, especially for niche papers, so offering reviewers a small monetary incentive might be a consideration. Journals should always require researchers to include all experimental details for reproducibility and share all the source data.

What are the biggest challenges that you see for the future of research and research dissemination?

I think that the biggest future challenge for research is the continuous access to appropriate funds. In the US, research funding is heavily dependent on policies and priorities of the governing administration, and this leads to significant uncertainty.