In the feverish race to study the coronavirus as it weaves its way across the planet, the unprecedented demand for information has brought all errors into the spotlight of global attention and tested the trust of the audience in science, experts say.
Although serious problems are rare, in a health emergency even small mistakes can spill over into scientific research and the internet, amplifying people’s uncertainty.
“I think the combination of a pandemic with social media and people who deliberately spread disinformation makes a lot of people think that all science is fraudulent, which it is not,” he said. ‘AFP Elizabeth Bik, Scientific Integrity Consultant.
Bik has dedicated his career to making sure mistakes – or worse – don’t slip through the cracks.
The microbiologist goes through the smallest details of scientific articles, looking for faulty methodologies, suspicious repetitions, inconsistent data or unreported conflicts of interest.
She publishes her findings on Twitter, on her blog and in comments on the scientific platform PubPeer, then lets the authors or editors of scientific journals react or act.
It hasn’t always made her popular – she’s faced an online backlash and even lawsuits – but she’s adamant that the pressure to post quickly increases the risk of mistakes.
A high-profile example came last year when the Lancet medical journal withdrew a study that found hydroxychloroquine – touted as a treatment by then-US President Donald Trump, among others – was ineffective against Covid -19, and even dangerous.
The document has come under scrutiny by fellow scientists, whose concerns about the reliability of the underlying data have highlighted serious issues with the research.
In the end, other reputable studies found that hydroxychloroquine did not work against the coronavirus, but the retraction caused confusion.
Bik said the incident had raised concerns among many that “not all scientific papers are reliable.”
– ‘The race for publication’ –
With research funding and even job security often tied to the number of papers published by an individual or institution, scientists have long complained about incentives to rush to write study papers.
Catherine Paradeise, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Marne-la-Vallée in France, told AFP that the pressures could have detrimental effects.
She points to a tendency to favor quantity over quality or to “tweak the conditions of a study” to save time.
His concern was echoed in a March report commissioned by a committee of the French Senate.
Investigators said they discovered “a systematic problem inherent in the research world” that could lead to unethical practices due to “the race to publish and the pressure to produce positive results.”
One of the investigating senators said that the Covid had served to “amplify the difficulties of scientific integrity” and to degrade “the trust between society and the world of science”.
– Safety nets –
Most research institutes have review mechanisms that ensure that studies meet standards accepted by the international scientific community.
“Integrity checking is how we ensure that science is conducted satisfactorily and serves a purpose,” Paradeise said.
In the early 1990s, when the United States created the Office for Research Integrity (ORI). Their main concern was to ensure that the funding was put to good use – a concern shared by private companies.
“There have been enough scandals for the American legislator to decide to be more picky about where to place their funding,” said Ghislaine Filliatreau, delegate for scientific integrity at the Inserm research institute.
“When we do research we have to track everything we do, this is fundamental for best practices… we have to be able to ask the people involved to show us their lab notes, their protocols, to tell us who did what. during the experiment, ”she added.
But she stressed that serious cases – like large-scale plagiarism or fabrications of experiments or results – are rare.
– ‘Overconfidence’ –
Bik fell into her role by accident in 2013, when she searched the internet for a sentence from one of her papers.
“I think this was the moment that kind of changed my life in hindsight as I found out that my sentence had been used by another group,” she said.
Bik found lines from the work of other people throughout the study.
The discovery began nearly a decade of scientific excavations and since 2019, its full-time job.
The seasoned whistleblower is widely supported by her peers, although she is no stranger to hostility online.
But the pandemic has sparked a harsher response from some corners of the scientific world.
When Bik raised concerns about what she considered abnormalities in dozens of studies by controversial French doctor Didier Raoult, several of which claimed to show the benefits of treating Covid patients with hydroxychloroquine, it was subjected to an intense backlash.
Bik was even doxxed – his private information posted online – by a member of Raoult’s team.
She is now being sued by Raoult for harassment and an investigation was opened on May 2 – an escalation that many believe will have a serious chilling effect on the scientific debate.
More than 1,000 researchers around the world have signed an open letter supporting it.
One of the co-signers told Science magazine that legal threats pose a “substantial threat to science as a social system”.
This did not deter Bik from his mission.
“Scientists have always trusted each other in the work of others,” she said.
“I think I’m here to say maybe we shouldn’t all blindly trust each other’s work. “
© 2021 AFP