SocArXiv media spotlight: Excess mortality in Puerto Rico

People walking in flood waters in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017.
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017. Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos.

A paper by Alexis Santos and Jeffrey T. Howard, posted on SocArXiv, has received wide media attention, highlighting some of the advantages of using SocArXiv. The paper, “Estimates of excess deaths in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria,” was posted as a preprint before peer review.

The abstract reports a “descriptive finding” on excess deaths following Hurricane María for September and October. Using historical data from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics system, the authors estimated expected deaths for each month. Then, using statements from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, they compared the number of deaths for September and October 2017 to those from previous years, taking variability into account. The difference between their estimates of actual deaths in 2017 and the high-end estimates for those months was 518 deaths for September and 567 deaths for October. They conclude that mortality on the island “may exceed the current official death toll by a factor of 10.”

The preprint has been cited and linked from articles in the New York Times, Vox, and Huffington Post, and other media sources. As of December 10 it has been downloaded from SocArXiv 1,333 times (and viewed in the browser window many more times than that).

Santos, who goes by @AppDemography on Twitter, is an active public scholar who previously posted a paper on SocArXiv about possible climate change effects on life expectancy in Europe.

This is a good best-practices story for several reasons.

  • There is an urgent need to understand the impact of the hurricane on Puerto Rico. The paper is not peer-reviewed, but it is ready to be distributed widely. The methods are clear and transparent. The media reporting now permits other scholars the opportunity to read and react to the paper publicly. It now appears the Santos and Howard estimates are in line with other calculations, and the paper contributes to an emerging consensus about the storm’s impact.
  • By posting the paper on SocArXiv and sharing it with the media from there, Santos was able to provide a persistent link to an open paper, time-stamped and linked with his profile page (which includes links to his ORCID ID, Google Scholar, and other accounts).
  • In addition to the persistent link on SocArXiv, the paper has a DOI associated with it. The Google Scholar link takes readers directly to the SocArXiv version, and is now recording citations to the paper. SocArXiv also preserves and makes availale the version record for the paper.
  • As a project on the Open Science Framework (which each SocArXiv paper automatically becomes), the paper may be easily associated with supporting documentation and research materials.
  • Finally, if the paper in some later version is published in a journal, the authors will have the opportunity of providing a forward-linking DOI on the SocArXiv page, so that readers will be directed to the journal site.

We’re delighted to see SocArXiv working as intended!