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

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

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

 


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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 https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-RESEARCH/0100B5ES3MG/index.html
  2. https://wcrif.org/guidance/singapore-statement (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- org.vu-nl.idm.oclc.org/10.1136/bmj.m1328 (accessed 13 May 2020)
  4. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764954 (accessed 13 May 2020)
  5. https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/04/experts-demolish-studies-suggesting-covid-19-is-no-worse-than-flu/) (accessed 13 May 2020)
  6. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.14.20062463v1.full.pdf (accessed 13 May 2020)

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