Flood of COVID-19 papers allows substandard research to slip through

By Leah Sherwood, Science Advisory Board contributing writer

October 2, 2020 -- This year's deluge of COVID-19 research publications has allowed substandard research to be published by academic journals or to be housed on preprint servers, resulting in the retraction of some papers. The chaotic publishing environment has potentially harmful implications for COVID-19 patients during treatment, a leading bioethicist wrote in a brief published in the Journal of Medical Ethics on October 1.

The brief raises questions about the rigor and integrity of COVID-19 research publications, and identifies one source of the problem as the tension between the very real "need for speed," driven by the public health crisis, and the need for careful peer review, which is driven by a "publish or perish" ethos that's endemic to academia.

The author also noted that open-access publishing has given clinicians the opportunity to use early research when making decisions about patient care, which can lead to problems when the research is substandard.

"Patient harm that is significant, permanent and irreversible could result from using faulty research results from preprints as well as published papers," said author Katrina Bramstedt, PhD, who is the secretary general and bioethicist at the Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity, in a statement.

According to Bramstedt, as of July 31, 2020, 19 published articles and 14 preprints about COVID-19 have been retracted or withdrawn, and one from France has been cited for potentially misleading information. More than half of the retracted or withdrawn papers came from institutions in Asia (19 of the 33), with 11 of that group submitted from institutions in China.

The problems leading to the removal of the 33 papers included methodological issues, concerns about interpretation of data and conclusions, and authorship and participant privacy issues. One case of data falsification was identified, as well as one undisclosed conflict of interest. In three cases, the papers were retracted or withdrawn for reasons that remain unknown. Four papers were part of a cluster of retractions due to unverifiable data common to the group, including two preprints on the SSRN preprint server and two research papers in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine.

"No research team is exempt from the pressures and speed at which COVID-19 research is occurring. And this can increase the risk of honest error as well as deliberate misconduct," said Bramstedt.

The author, recognizing "the humanness of the research process," further expressed concern that rushed research, whether honest or deliberate, can cause reputational damage to scientists and loss of future funding.

In her recommendations to prevent substandard research from flying under the radar, Bramstedt advocated mandatory training in research ethics and integrity and advised research teams to incorporate scheduled spot-checking of data. In addition, she recommended that research ethics committees create lists of go-to experts such as immunologists, microbiologists, and pulmonologists who can be retained as consultants for research reviews pertaining to COVID-19.

Finally, she recommended that when research integrity problems are discovered, whistleblower protections are needed, any infractions of policies should have meaningful consequences to ward off repeat offenses, and investigations should be transparent.

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