Episode 70: Covid-19 Paper Retractions

In this weeks episode, listen to Dr. Bahijja give an update on recent retractions of COVID-19 papers, as a follow up to our previous episode on earlier retracted papers from Early to Mid 2020.

Image of COVID-19 viral particle from Fusion Medical Animation.

As noted by Dr. Bahijja, academic papers are usually published as part of KPI, or key performance indicators. It is not only a way to share our research, but also to disseminate information within the scientific community — to help advance knowledge of a particular topic. Unlike what people outside of academia may think, people are not actually paid to publish and are actually required to pay publication fees in many circumstances — which has led to an amount of controversy within the scientific community.

Publications are generally published in peer review journals, where reviewers who are experts in the subject verify the accuracy and quality of the work to be published. Another aspect that is less often discussed are reprints.

What are reprints?

Reprints are when a work is not peer reviewed, but it is published within a repository. Therefore, the work is not peer reviewed but still published in a public domain. Oftentimes, this is done so that a person can verify their and be recognised for their work. Some fields tend to utilise this type of publication more-so than others.

COVID-19 has highlighted some of the confusion surrounding re-prints, as many researchers were publishing their work in repositories before any peer review process, as the process is quite long. This is done so that information can be quickly disseminated, however, the downside is, of course, that the work has not necessary been verified by a group of peer-reviewers. This led to many people referencing these prints, that had not yet been peer reviewed.

What is peer review?

Peer review refers to a process in publication, where previous to publishing a work, a group of experts or those familiar with a field review the text to verify its quality — this could be to verify that the data is sound, the conclusions are quality, or that the work is unbiased. It is generally considered to be an important process in order to maintain quality of scientific information and knowledge.

After a work is published, peer-review continues, as people can provide feedback or challenge information either in support or in disagreement with the text or research. Non-researchers or non-academics can also provide feedback — this has become far more common with the sharing of publications on social media, for example with petitions to retract an article.

Explanation of the peer review process courtesy of Wiley.

What is a retraction?

If a paper is published and then found to have flaws within its data, conclusions, bias, etc. through either the ongoing peer review process or view other means, it can be retracted. It is important to remember that retractions can occur for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from honest mistakes that hadn’t been noticed earlier on to falsified data or plagiarism. Retractions are mainly used to ensure the quality and integrity of scientific knowledge.

In 2018, there was a famous article published on retractions entitled “What a massive database of retracted papers reveals about science publishing’s ‘death penalty”, which reviewed trends in retractions over the past decade (2008–2018). At the time of publishing, it was highlighted that the number of retractions had increased by 10x over the last decade, with fraud comprising 60%+ of retractions. Although some statistics were unclear, it still seemed relatively rare to have a retraction, often 1–2 out of every 10,000+ papers. In 2014, for example, there were over 1000 retractions. Many people have suggested that the increase in retractions may be due to increased ability and better verification methods to analyse publications.

COVID-19 Paper Retractions

In order to ensure the public and community is well informed on COVID-19, a great number of articles have been published on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its resulting disease, COVID-19. Over 30,000 documents have beeb indexed on various platforms, such as PubMed, relating to COVID-19, with the majority being published in the BMJ, Lancet, etc.

Given the high influx of papers in a short period of time, there was also a resulting increase in the number of retractions, many of which were in very reputable and high-impact journals. These retractions are important in the context of a pandemic, as published information on the virus or COVID-19 can be used to influence public health policy or medical treatment. Once a paper is retracted, unfortunately, this does not prevent it from being cited in the future, which can further contribute to this issue. In 2020, by December, over 39+ articles on COVID-19 had been retracted from pre-prints, however, this does not include articles informally published in newspapers or blogs that could also be spreading potentially false information.

Explanation of an impact factor by University of Denver.

The most important publishing mistakes that occurred that year came from a pair of articles found in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. The articles were removed after issues were found within the published data, which the co-authors were refused access to. Another editorial was edited and republished, that had cited this article. Another article suggesting a link between 5G tower technology and induction of COVID-19 in skin cells was retracted, which claimed COVID-19 resulted from 5G telecom technology. This was quickly retracted and was dubbed “the worst retraction of 2020”, given its ties to conspiracy theories relating to SARS-CoV-2. One article suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 and certain fungal diseases had a “cosmic origin” was retracted, after claiming that the virus had entered earth via a meteorite and referred to it as a “cosmic pathogen”.

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An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.