None of these “discoveries” have been proven. But all of them have been widely distributed.
These are examples of what many scientists are beginning to fear as the erosion of traditional safeguards against bad science in the face of the urgent need to respond to the wave of disease that is sweeping the globe.
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“We get a lot of research data because we need it,” said Rees Kassen, a scientist at the University of Ottawa who recently published an article on the problem with the World Economic Forum.
“It’s good, but it must be accompanied by strong warnings. “
The speed and volume of research on the new coronavirus is unprecedented. During the 2003 SARS crisis, a French study found that 93% of articles on the virus were published after the epidemic ended.
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Not this time. LitCovid, a hub of articles on COVID-19, says more than 1,600 on the subject were published last week alone.
But many are so-called “pre-prints” – untested research that comes out of the lab.
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Normally, a scientist with new discoveries writes them down and submits them to a journal. An editorial board researches the problems, checks the results against other research, and submits them to the type of review that leads to more solid work.
Peer review, however, takes months, if not years. COVID-19 does not give us much time.
Increasingly, medical scientists have turned to pre-press sites, where the work is published within a few days.
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“They’re not peer reviewed,” said Jim Woodgett, director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto, which is also affiliated with one of the leading pre-press sites.
“What we are doing is superficial enough to verify that the submitted manuscripts are truly scientific and that they are not just garbage and they are not dangerous. This is the buyer, beware. ”
Preprint sites have busy comment sections and bad science is quickly reported. The COVID / HIV document, for example, has been withdrawn.
Many scientists fear that weak pre-prints will always spread misinformation. Despite its flaws, the article on blood types was published in the New York Post.
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The public and journalists writing for them will need to be more careful with their sources, said Jim Germida, a biologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
He oversees Canadian Science Publishing, which prints more than 20 scientific journals.
“There is a lot of good science going on in preprints. But you have to be careful. “
Traditional journals are doing their best to meet the demand for the latest research on COVID-19.
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“There are very many reputable journals that have expedited their review process,” said Germida.
In addition, most major journals have made their archives free and open, offering decades of superior research to all who need it.
Woodgett said reputable journals are under pressure to get useful information, even if it is imperfect or incomplete. And with the closure of universities, many researchers may not be able to return to their laboratories to scatter these endings.
“There has been a drop in standards. “
Science has never been perfect, he added. Bad articles were published before COVID-19; new discoveries supplant old ones.
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Kassen points out that the death rate from COVID-19 was first estimated at 15%. It is now estimated at around 1%.
“The best we can do is work with uncertainty.”
This is a new world for scientific publishing. Woodgett offers sorting tips that will look familiar to anyone who has searched for an item or bought a used car.
“If someone tells you something remarkable, you have to find something else to back it up. “
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