Last week, the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, retracted two COVID-19-related papers. One of those papers had reported on negative effects of hydroxycloroquine as a potential treatment option, leading to much controversy over the use of the drug. The reason for the retraction? Surgisphere Corporation, the company providing the underlying database of information that was analyzed in the study, refused to grant access to its raw data for independent review and verification of its origins.
This kind of ‘error’ in publication has dramatic consequences. Publications in one of the most respected medical journals in the world carry a lot of weight – major drug trials were immediately halted, treatment recommendations changed, based on its findings.
This shines a light on the challenges with scientific publications and the peer review process. The process, like most, and even in the most reputable circles, isn’t perfect. Some of it’s challenges include:
– Peer reviewers are unpaid volunteer scientists, who are not rewarded for the time they spend doing detailed review
– Original data are not typically required to be submitted for peer review, so there is no focus on verifying their legitimacy
– Scientist face significant pressures to publish as many papers as possible, since their careers are evaluated on it
– During this pandemic, there is also the added pressure of releasing information that might save lives as quickly as possible
The dangerous effects of getting it wrong in scientific publication can’t be understated. However, I hope that this will at least increase scrutiny on all publications and pressure on scientists and journals to ‘get it right.’ And we must all do our part to hold science up to the light, to see what passes muster.