COVID-19 Resource Center

COVID-19 Resource Center


Healio Interviews

Disclosures: Shapiro reports no relevant financial disclosures.
June 19, 2020
3 min read

Q&A: Journal retractions 'due to a rush to publish’ information on COVID-19


Healio Interviews

Disclosures: Shapiro reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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As researchers work rapidly to publish research on COVID-19, major medical journals including The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine have retracted articles because of issues regarding data transparency and methodology.

Additionally, online misinformation and changing therapeutic candidates may contribute to issues with the dissemination of accurate data. Healio spoke with Infectious Disease News Editorial Board Member Eugene Shapiro, MD, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, about flaws with the peer-review process, as well as potential solutions.

Gene Shapiro infographic

Q: What general issues have you seen with the peer-review process that you think may be contributing to recent retractions?

A: I think the major retractions are due to a rush to publish information about the pandemic. I think that is a special case with some mitigating circumstances.

The peer-review process has never been perfect — reviewers occasionally make mistakes, as do editors, and I think it is correct that the review process may not be able to detect outright fraud.

It is imperfect, but it is a little like the peer-review system for grants. It is definitely imperfect, but it is probably better than any of the alternatives. The pandemic has exacerbated the issues in that I think there is a feeling of more urgency to get information out there.

The other major problem is that there a lot of so called “predatory” journals that charge for publication. They charge the authors and are really in business to make money. Those journals are often owned by, for example, organizations that have a particular bias or advocacy, or that are simply in it for the profit and will publish anything to get money.

Q: What issues specific to the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to these editorial issues and the recent retractions?

A: Because of the high mortality rate of COVID-19 and the effect it's having medically on individuals, the economy and our society, and because it's new, everybody feels that there is an urgency to try to provide information that can either be helpful for people or to prevent harm. For example, one of the retracted articles claimed that there was harm from a treatment, and the journal editors wanted to get that out there as soon as possible.

Q: What do you think can be done to improve the current peer-review process?

A: It could be helpful to have more reviewers look at an article, particularly for those that are going to be very fast tracked or published quickly with a very short turnaround so they would be more likely to detect problems, because any individual person is not likely to be an expert in biostatistics, study design, molecular issues related to the drug and clinical issues.

Another strategy is just to be very careful. The editors have to go over things with a fine-toothed comb themselves.

Q: What impact on the perception of peer-reviewed research do these retractions have on both the public and medical experts?

A: I think there is some amount of discrediting that’s happened, but there is also a lot of skepticism about everything these days. Recently, I saw a poll that said 25% of people would not accept a vaccine against COVID-19 even if there were one available. I'm not sure that a couple of retractions are going to have a major impact on public perception or the perception of research scientists and the academic community — particularly if the retractions are related to the pandemic and the desire to get information out as soon as possible.

One thing that could help is to make sure that the data on which a study is based are available to everyone and that it is fully transparent. One recent article was retracted because the data could not be independently verified. It may not have been wrong, but it was retracted because nobody could evaluate it.

Q: Do you see any changes being made to the peer-review process in the near future?

A: Retractions are not new. These particular retractions just happened to get a lot of publicity. I am not sure if this will be a sea change. My guess is that editors will be a bit more careful and make sure that data are transparent and readily available if somebody wants to review them. I doubt that there will be any major changes beyond a little more careful scrutiny in the immediate future.