by Izabela Skowrońska
A year after it had been declared a pandemic, COVID-19 remains an unavoidable topic in many areas of our lives, from daily news headlines to scientific papers continuously being published. The mainstream media is constantly feeding its recipients new information received from the scientific community about the virus. Members of the general public pass on this information to friends, relatives, social media contacts. In a lot of cases, validity of the claims made by the “experts” are not checked – why should they be? First authored by an academic, research often passes a rigorous review process conducted by professionals in the field before being published. The problem arises when a study that should have never been published somehow slips through this process and is then used as a basis for further arguments by the readers and even other scientists.
Unfortunately, this was the case in the summer of 2020 when the entire scientific world was focused on the possibilities of COVID-19 treatment. Famously, a study published in The Lancet last May, claimed that patients taking an antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as treatment against the coronavirus were more likely to die than those not taking it. The data used in this paper came from an American healthcare analytics company Surgisphere (Piller, 2021). It claimed to possess medical data from over thousand hospitals around the world. In the mentioned study, the data was allegedly collected in over 96,000 patients from more than 600 hundred hospitals and showed that the mortality rate for the COVID-19 patients doubled if they were given hydroxychloroquine. Various researchers were quick to point out that the reported effect size was “too big to be true”, given the numbers of participants exceeded the officially reported data on some continents, and contained highly detailed information on the demographics of the subjects being reported (Offord, 2020). This led to the infamous study being retracted, as well as an official apology by the The Lancet and Surgisphere website being taken offline.
If the study was retracted last June, why are we still discussing it? Unfortunately, once a publication is released, not only is it impossible to track every reader it reached, but also inform them about the invalidity of the article resulting in its retraction. Moreover, such practical difficulties result in retracted studies continuing to be cited in widely-accessible scientific papers and their retracted status not being mentioned. According to the Science Magazine, 52.2% of recent articles that cited either the beforementioned publication or another study based on Surgisphere data do not indicate in any way that those papers were retracted (Piller, 2021). The question arises – do the authors of the articles citing the infamous studies consciously disregard their retraction or are they negligent enough to simply copy and paste citations from similar publications, without giving them a thorough read? No matter which one is true, the problem persists – the average reader of those articles will not check the cited sources but instead, simply pass the information onwards.
The main issue is that any “alternative” perspective on an issue such as the novel coronavirus affecting everyone, will be automatically spotlighted by the media and thus gain the attention of all kinds of science sceptics. One of the most well-known examples is the infamous study from 1998 conducted by Dr Andrew Wakefield in which he and his colleagues implied a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. As it was later discovered, Wakefield not only manipulated the sample but his study was also funded by lawyers of parents fighting vaccination companies in courts (Eggertson, 2010). The results of the study were never replicated and the paper itself was retracted, but the damage was done – it took 12 years for The Lancet to take the study down, during which others have used those results in further papers arguing for the harmfulness of the vaccines. Sadly, such studies only fuelled the growth of the anti-vax movement, which gained huge popularity, resulting in many children being denied crucial vaccines by their own parents.
Additionally, problems with distinguishing legitimate research from neatly presented fictitious data is the scientific jargon, that an average reader is unfamiliar with. Although most readers would easily disbelief a research paper published on the 16th of July 2020 titled “5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells”, it is much harder to doubt a study that “sounds scientific”. That is why, in the world of misinformation, watchdogs such as The Retraction Watch are so important. This initiative tracks the retracted scientific papers and comprises them into topical databases that anyone has access to (Retraction Watch, 2021). This way, anyone can check if the paper that their local news channel cites is accepted by the scientific community or not.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of devoted scientists and initiatives such as The Retraction Watch, retracted papers will continue to be used as arguments by non-professional authors and the average readers. We can only hope that after a year of living in the pandemic, the consensus amongst most scientists regarding measures that can be taken to protect against the coronavirus is clear enough to assure the public of news that can be disregarded, ensuring a greater level of trust within evidence-based approaches.
Eggertson, L. (2010, March 09). Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. Retrieved from Canadian Medical Association Journal: https://www.cmaj.ca/content/182/4/E199
Offord, C. (2020, May 30). Disputed Hydroxychloroquine Study Brings Scrutiny to Surgisphere. Retrieved from The Scientist: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/disputed-hydroxychloroquine-study-brings-scrutiny-to-surgisphere-67595
Piller, C. (2021, January 22). Disgraced COVID-19 studies are still routinely cited. Retrieved from Science: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/371/6527/331
Retraction Watch. (2021). Retracted coronavirus (COVID-19) papers. Retrieved from Retraction Watch: https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/