The Covid-19 pandemic has created a flood of potentially substandard research amid the rush to publish, with a string of papers retracted or under a cloud and a surge in submissions to pre-print servers where fewer quality checks are made, a leading ethicist has warned in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
This has implications for patients, clinicians, and potentially government policy, says Katrina Bramstedt, of Bond University, in Australia, and Secretary General at Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity.
The rapid spread of Covid-19 and its transition into a global pandemic propelled 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.
As of 7 May 2020, 1221 studies on Covid-19 were registered on the international clinical trial registry site, ClinicalTrials.gov. And as of 31 July 2020, 19 published articles and 14 preprints about Covid-19 have been retracted, withdrawn, or had serious doubts raised about the integrity of their data, formally known as an expression of concern.
Over half of these papers came from Asia. But as Bramstedt points out: "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."
But 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 says.
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, says Professor Bramstedt.
Journals, too, rely on a fleet of peer reviewers, all of whom work on a voluntary basis and have competing demands on their time.
To counter these issues, the author suggests that the efficiency of the submission process should be tightened up and that research ethics and integrity training be mandated for all researchers. They should also be trained in issues like authorship disputes, image manipulation, citations and referencing, informed consent, ethical participant recruitment, etc.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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