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COVID-19 research and the problem of fast tracked peer review

As highlighted in a New York Times editorial, the rush to publish during the pandemic may be threatening the credibility of respected medical journals. This follows redactions of key papers and papers that contradict each other being published in succession.

The driver for this is perhaps a demand to publish research quickly, especially research that is in the public eye such as studies linked to COVID-19.

Two prominent examples, both in June 2020, saw papers withdrawn from two of the world’s most highly regarded medical journals. The first was The Lancet, which pulled a study that raised concerns about the safety of the experimental COVID-19 treatments chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. This was due to issues raised by other scientists, upon review, after looking into the published data. This paper had a significant impact, leading to global clinical trials studying hydroxychloroquine to be suspended.

The second journal to pull a study was the New England Journal of Medicine, which retracted a separate study looking into blood pressure medications in relation to coronavirus infection. Interestingly the data came from the same company behind the paper published in The Lanceta U.S. company called Surgisphere (according to The Guardian).

The peer-review process, although more robust than being reliant upon the judgement of a single editor, is not with out its flaws. Sometimes the author will recommend reviewers; sometimes editors select them. Either way this has led to accusations of gender or national bias, and sometimes re-opening old wounds between rival researchers. There is actually a wide body of peer reviewed papers which research “the flawed process” of peer review. In an ideal world, peer-review leads to manuscripts being assessed for rigor, methodological soundness, consistency, and overall quality, with only papers that meet these criteria being published. as the COVID-19 examples illustrate, this does not always happen.

Another area of concern is with papers that come under the banner ‘preprint’. These are research papers that are put onto a publicly accessible server in advance of peer review. While this can be useful for engaging with other academics, unvetted science, especially when it makes a bold claim, can be misinterpreted by news outlets and by the public at large. It also stands that the paper may never pass peer review and is withdrawn; meanwhile, the claims remain in the collective memory of those who have read them.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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