Several scientific articles on research related to COVID-19 have been criticized by the scientific community in recent weeks. Two articles dealing with the viability of certain drugs in patients with coronavirus were retracted, and there are scientists who are requesting the retraction of a third article that evaluated human behaviours that mitigate the transmission of the virus.
Retractions are considered by some to be a criticism of the scientific process. Certainly, the dismissal of these articles is bad news and many are to blame.
But despite these short-term setbacks, scrutiny and subsequent correction of scientific articles actually show us that science works. These reports of the pandemic make people see, in many cases for the first time, the cumbersome business of scientific progress.
Scientific community responds quickly to poor studies
Two research articles on the viability of some drugs in patients with coronavirus were published in May. The first, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, stated that a drug for cardiovascular problems was suitable for patients with COVID-19, despite previous doubts about it. The second, published in The Lancet, claimed that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, increased the risk of death when used to treat the coronavirus.
The Lancet article forced the World Health Organization to briefly discontinue studies investigating hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19.
Within days, more than 200 scientists signed an open letter harshly criticizing the article, noting that some of the findings were simply implausible. The database provided by small business Surgisphere (whose website is no longer accessible) was not available during the article’s peer review or thereafter for scientists or the general public, preventing anyone from evaluating the data. Finally, the letter suggested that the company was unlikely to be able to obtain the hospital records that were allegedly in the database when no one else had access to that information.
In early June, both The Lancet and New Englang Journal of Medicine articles were retracted citing concerns about the integrity of the databases used by the researchers in their studies. A retraction is the withdrawal of a published scientific article because the data from which the main conclusions of the article are obtained have major problems. Such problems may be due to intentional scientific fraud, although this is not always the case.
The urgency to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to the publication of bungling and possibly fraudulent scientific articles . Quality control measures that minimize insufficient quality scientific publications failed miserably in these cases.
Defective and repeated
The retraction of the research article on hydroxychloroquine had immediate media relevance, not only because it discredited science in general, but also because President Donald Trump had presented the drug as an effective treatment against the coronavirus despite the lack of reliable evidence.
The press responded with a strong hand. The New York Times stated that “The pandemic is fattening new victims: the prestigious medical journals. ” The Wall Street Journal accused The Lancet of “politicizing science” and the Los Angeles Times claimed that the retracted articles “damaged the image of global research on the coronavirus.”
These headlines may have their merit, but you also need perspective. Retractions are somewhat unusual: only about 0.04% of all published scientific articles are withdrawn, but scrutiny, updating and corrections are common. This is how science should work and this is what happens in all areas of research related to SARS-CoV-2.
Doctors have learned that the disease attacks multiple organs and not just the lungs as originally thought. Scientists are still working to understand whether COVID-19 patients develop immunity to the disease or not. Regarding hydroxychloroquine, three new large-scale scientific studies published after The Lancet’s retraction indicate that the antimalarial drug is indeed ineffective in treating or preventing the coronavirus.
Science corrects itself
Before a scientific article is published, it undergoes a peer review by experts on the subject who recommend to the editors of the scientific journal if the article is suitable for publication, rejected or reconsidered after making modifications. The journal’s reputation depends on quality peer review practices and once the article is published it becomes public domain, and it can be evaluated and judged by other scientists.
Publication of the articles in The Lancet and in the New England Journal of Medicine failed in terms of peer review. However, the scrutiny of the scientific community, likely encouraged by the media attention of the coronavirus research, was able to detect the errors in record time.
The article on hydroxychloroquine published in The Lancet was retracted just 13 days after being published. By way of comparison, it took The Lancet 12 years to retract a fraudulent article that wrongly claimed that vaccines cause autism.
Whether these articles deliberately applied scientific malpractice is still unknown, but mistakes and corrections are common, even among high-level scientists. For example, Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of proteins, later published an erroneous DNA structure. Their finding was later corrected by Watson and Crick. Mistakes and corrections are a hallmark of progress in science and not bad practice.
It is important to note that these errors were exposed by other scientists and were not revealed by any surveillance agency or observation group.
These exchanges between academics are fundamental to science. There is no reason to believe that scientists are more virtuous than the rest. In reality, the human qualities in terms of curiosity, competitiveness, self-interest and reputation that are at stake before and after the article is published. A strong evidence-based model is created as the weakest is left behind.
Living with uncertainty
From classes and textbooks in high school, science seems to be made up of an entity of well-known facts and principles that are simple and indisputable. These types of sources look back on science and often make discoveries seem inevitable, if not boring.
Actually, the scientists are learning on the fly. Uncertainty is inherent in the path of discovery and success is not guaranteed. Only 14% of drugs and treatments that undergo human clinical trials end up getting approval from the FDA, the US drug control agency, and the success rate is barely 4% for cancer drugs.
The scientific process usually takes place outside public awareness, so this uncertainty often goes unnoticed. However, Americans are paying close attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the first time, many are interested in how these processes are carried out.
Although recent retractions may be heartbreaking, the medicine has been very successful in the long term: smallpox has been eradicated, infections can be treated with antibiotics rather than amputations, and pain control during surgery has advanced far beyond times when the only option was to bite a stick.
The system is not perfect at all, but it is quite good.