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.