Gitter Lab

How COVID-19 shaped the evolution of a collaborative manuscript writing tool

The COVID-19 pandemic and the evolution of a tech-driven world are both major factors highlighting the need to increase the accessibility of research and improve upon the efficiency of science publishing. Manubot is one tool that could change the game. 

Co-developed by Morgridge Investigator Anthony Gitter alongside colleagues Halie Rando, Casey Greene, and Daniel Himmelstein at the University of Colorado Anschutz and University of Pennsylvania, Manubot is an automated software framework enabling collaborative manuscript writing and editing through the software development platform, GitHub. 

Anthony Gitter
Anthony Gitter

At the onset of the pandemic, the team realized that Manubot could be used as a tool to synthesize the rapidly published COVID-19 literature into an editable and accessible manuscript reviewing diagnostics and therapeutics through a concentrated effort. 

Gitter and colleagues did not anticipate the sheer magnitude at which COVID-19 literature would explode, and what was originally meant to be a single review manuscript, flourished into eight separate papers that will eventually be compiled in a special issue of the journal, mSystems

The Manubot software, as well as Rando’s process of gathering and organizing the mass of literature and knowledge, adapted to accommodate the larger scale of the COVID-19 review project. 

The tool now has a feature where it grabs data from credible websites, processes it, and inserts it into the manuscripts via informational figures. The automated facilitation of quantitative data allows for researchers to focus their energy in writing and publishing the actual research. 

In efforts to navigate the seemingly endless sea of information, Rando finalized on a structure within her team to most efficiently divide up information, given how varied and heterogeneous the research is. 

“What we try to do is identify people who have expertise in different areas and get them working together to synthesize the most relevant information out there,” says Rando. “We look for the gaps and look for the issues as they come up so that we can be responding to things in real time.” 

Looking toward the future, Gitter and Rando say that there is still much room to further develop the Manubot software and make it more available for those who lack a programming background, or even integrate the software more seamlessly with available writing tools. 

I hope that Manubot can be one tool of many that contributes toward making scientific literature more accessible and open to everyone.

Anthony Gitter

Gitter and Rando are optimistic about the future of Manubot and how other organizations can use its software to curate and publish their own manuscripts. 

“I think it remains a pretty unique way of writing a manuscript, as if it were a collaborative software for writing a manuscript in a way that’s open to anybody with the right expertise if they want to join in,” says Gitter. “But still keeping some control because there are project maintainers who get to review contributions and decide if they’re accurate enough to preserve the quality of the manuscript.” 

Two years after the development of the COVID-19 review project, Manubot remains an innovative and unique software-oriented method for manuscript writing, unlike any other tool seen in the market thus far. 

And as the White House makes strides to make federally funded research freely open to the public, Gitter says that he looks forward to what advancements in research will come to fruition. 

“I hope that Manubot can be one tool of many that contributes toward making scientific literature more accessible and open to everyone,” he adds.