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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Assuring research integrity during a pandemic – BMJopinion (Gowri Gopalakrishna, et al | June 2020)0

Posted by Admin in on July 6, 2020

Compared to the SARS outbreak in 2003, the covid-19 pandemic has led to substantially more scientific publications during the first four months. Preprints have become the medium of choice. The rapidly increasing number of publications combined with the urgency to quickly understand the new pathogen presents a significant challenge for maintaining the integrity of the underlying evidence base, and to ensure that research is conducted according to global standards of research integrity [1,2].

Rapid publication can aggravate questionable research practices

Competition and the pressure to publish quickly can lead researchers to (inadvertently) base studies on questionable methods. This has recently been a major issue in discussions of the models used to plan responses and predict the future course of the pandemic. A recent research paper in The BMJ found that: “proposed models are poorly reported, at high risk of bias, and their reported performance is probably optimistic.” [3] Similar concerns are currently being raised about serological tests coming onto the market rapidly as a way to determine the extent of immunity against covid-19. Manufacturers claim their tests have high sensitivity and specificity, but with little or no published data yet to back this, it is hard to assess the basis of these claims. This lack of transparency on the research behind these tests is worrying as more and more countries turn to testing to guide easing of lockdowns [4].

Rapid publication amplifies weaknesses in peer review

Competition and the pressure to publish quickly has produced a flood of un-peer-reviewed papers published as preprints. Publishing and sharing  preprints encourages scientific collaboration, transparency, and fast sharing of data.  But, in a crisis, it could lead to the spread and use of controversial information that needs further peer evaluation and validation. A recent case is the fierce scientific debate [5] on twitter and blog posts around a Stanford preprint [6] that claimed the case fatality rate of covid-19 was similar to seasonal influenza. Researchers were quick to raise questions about sampling, the validity of the antibody tests used and statistical calculations. Much has been written about social media’s ability to spread (mis)information rapidly. Recent reports analysed preprints’ viral potential on social media and news outlets [7]. Examples include a study showing a link between covid-19 and HIV, which was tweeted at least 17,000 times and reached 25 news outlets despite being criticised widely by scientists and rapidly retracted [1].

  1. Speed Science: The risks of swiftly spreading coronavirus research. Reuters. Published 19 Feb 2020
  2. (accessed 13 May 2020)
  3. Wynants L, Van Calster B, Bonten MJ et al. Prediction models for diagnosis and prognosis of covid-19 infection: systematic review and critical appraisal. BMJ, 2020; 369: m1328; https://doi- (accessed 13 May 2020)
  4. (accessed 13 May 2020)
  5. (accessed 13 May 2020)
  6. (accessed 13 May 2020)

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(Italy) There is no I in data: Former grad student has paper retracted after mentor objects – Retraction Watch (Adam Marcus | June 2020)0

Posted by Admin in on July 5, 2020

Just because you work in a lab doesn’t mean you get to call the data you produce your own. Ask Constantin Heil.

Problems like this can be compounded if your institution’s policy affords HDR candidates shared ownership for data generated as part of their studies.  Does your institution have resources to mitigate this?  We have included two resources from an Australia institution.

In the mid-2010s, Heil was a PhD student at La Sapienza University in Rome, where he conducted studies with his mentor, Giuseppe Giannini. That research led to Heil’s dissertation, a paper titled “One size does not fit all: Cell type specific tailoring of culture conditions permits establishment of divergent stable lines from murine cerebellum.”

Heil — who is now working in Switzerland for a company called SOPHiA Genetics — used some of those data to publish a 2019 article, “Hedgehog pathway permissive conditions allow generation of immortal cell lines from granule cells derived from cancerous and non-cancerous cerebellum,” in a peer-reviewed journal, Open Biology, which belongs to the Royal Society.

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China is tightening its grip on coronavirus research – Nature (Andrew Silver & David Cyranoski | April 2020)0

Posted by Admin in on July 5, 2020

Some scientists welcome government vetting because it could stop poor-quality COVID-19 papers being published – others fear it is an attempt to control information.

China’s government has started asserting tight control over COVID-19 research findings. Over the past two months, it appears to have quietly introduced policies that require scientists to get approval to publish — or publicize — their results, according to documents seen by Nature and some researchers.

This fits with media reports that at least two Chinese universities have posted notices online stating that research on the virus’s origins needs to be approved by the university’s academic committee and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) or Ministry of Education (MOE) before being submitted for publication.

Scientists in China say the changes are probably a response to poor-quality studies on the virus, which have been posted online and reported widely — and several welcome them. But some academics have suggested that the policies are part of China’s attempt to control information about the start of the outbreak.

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Just How Historic Is the Latest Covid-19 Science Meltdown? – WIRED (Adam Marcus & Ivan Oransky | June 2020)0

Posted by Admin in on June 28, 2020

Don’t blame last week’s journal retractions on the scary pace of the pandemic. “Once-in-a-lifetime” scandals like this seem to happen all the time.

WHEN The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine pulled an influential pair of Covid-19 papers last Thursday, it was a rare event in scientific publishing. For medical researchers, this was like seeing The Washington Post and The New York Times take down related news stories at the same time—a confluence of editorial failures that raises dire questions about what went wrong and why. But how surprising is this scandal, really? Could these be among “the biggest retractions in modern history,” as one observer described the news about the paper in The Lancet? That depends entirely on how you read history. Science meltdowns of this type—and the “biggest” retractions that ensue—occur with shocking regularity. Again and again, over decades, scientists and the public have had their confidence in the enterprise shaken by these sorts of disturbing revelations; and then, again and again, over decades, everyone has been surprised. Cue Casablanca.

The latest scandal is, indeed, a bad one. At the moment, we don’t know the full story of what went wrong, beyond that the papers’ authors and the journals’ editors decided that they could no longer trust the underlying data. Both studies purportedly drew from the medical records of 96,000 patients with Covid-19, seen at hundreds of different hospitals around the world. The NEJM article reported that those with cardiovascular disease were at increased risk for death from Covid-19, and that the use of certain heart medications did not appear to compound that risk. The Lancet paper reported that the drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine did not help the 15,000 patients who took them; in fact, these medications seemed to cause significant harm.

The giant data set was never made available for inspection by other scientists, which would be critical for demonstrating that results are reproducible. More astounding, the private and secretive company that owned the data, called Surgisphere, denied full access to the papers’ authors too. That’s bad faith, and it violates best practices for respectable science.

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