Pandemic has created influx of potentially substandard research, experts say


The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a flood of potentially substandard research amid the rush to publish, with a string of papers retracted and a surge in submissions to pre-print servers where fewer quality checks are made, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

This has implications for patients, clinicians, and potentially government policy, according to Katrina Bramstedt, PhD, author of the paper, adjunct professor at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, and Secretary General at the Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 and its transition into a global pandemic propelled many researchers to begin the search for treatments and vaccines in earnest. Scientific and medical journals have since been flooded with submissions, while thousands of papers, which have not undergone thorough quality checks, have been posted on preprint servers, Bramstedt said.

As of press time, there were 3,532 studies on COVID-19 registered on the international clinical trial registry website, Additionally, s of July 2020, 19 published articles and 14 preprints about COVID-19 have been retracted, withdrawn, or had serious doubts raised about the integrity of their data or an expression of concern. Most of these papers came from Asia, about 57 percent, with over half coming from China.  

The reason for the removal of the papers isn't known in three cases, Bramstedt said, but data falsification, methodological issues, and concerns about interpretation of data and conclusions, as well as authorship and participant privacy issues, were among the reasons in the other papers.

For example, two preprints and two research papers in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine were retracted because of unverifiable data, the author said. Further, a preprint from the U.S. about COVID-19 antibody seroprevalence has come under scrutiny for an undisclosed conflict of interest.

There are obvious implications for the journal and the researchers involved, even if they are innocent of any research misconduct, Bramstedt said. However, there are also implications for patients. Patient harm that is significant, permanent, and irreversible could result from using faulty research results from preprints as well as published papers, she said.

The rush to publish means there is less time for quality checks by researchers and their supervisors and for thorough reviews of study applications by research ethics committees, according to the paper. Added to which, these committees can't be expected to routinely include the key experts needed for COVID-19 research, such as immunologists, microbiologists, and lung disease specialists.

To counter these issues, Bramstedt suggests that the efficiency of the submission process is tightened up and that research ethics and integrity training be mandated for all researchers. They should also have timely access to ethical advice on research dilemmas involving topics such as authorship disputes, image manipulation, citations and referencing, informed consent, and ethical participant recruitment. Any infractions of policies and standards should have meaningful consequences to ward off repeat offences, she said, adding that it's important to publicize the results of any investigations, whatever the outcome. Journals, too, rely on a fleet of peer reviewers, all of whom work on a voluntary basis and have competing demands on their time, she said.

“No research team is exempt from the pressures and speed at which COVID-19 research is occurring,” Bramstedt said in a statement. “And this can increase the risk of honest error as well as deliberate misconduct. Research has the potential to enter the public domain and be used by many stakeholders, including governments and policy makers, so the data must be robust.”

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