Dozens of COVID19-Related Articles Retracted: How to Assess the Quality of Research in the COVID-19 Era


Author: Dr Alessandra Curioni-Fontecedro, University Hospital Zurich, Switzerland

During the SARS-CoV2 pandemic it has been hard to follow the explosion of research about the virus and the disease. As medical professionals and researchers, we tried to keep the pace of information about treatment approaches and new ones in development. It has been complex to give answers to patients and objective opinions due to the huge amount of information which was sometimes partially contradictory. Therefore, it was puzzling to realise that dozens of COVID-19-related papers have already been retracted in the past few months. In general, retractions in scientific publishing can occur and probably 30 out of thousands of COVID-19-related articles do not exceed the usual proportion of retracted articles in science. What is unusual is that retraction normally occurs over years, whereas for COVID-19-related articles it happened within a few weeks, sometimes within days after publication. It is obvious that in such life-threatening circumstances, fast information is crucial and journals feel the need to deliver such results rapidly. However, the information must be trustworthy, otherwise it undermines the trust in science.

For such emergencies, there should be alternative ways to share opinions or preliminary results as they can be of interest to the scientific community, but they may not yet be independently confirmed.

Among others, two retracted articles got particular attention as they were published on the most popular high-indexed journals.

The first one, in The Lancet, reported data from patients treated with chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. The results showed a negative impact of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine in patients positive to COVID-19. This paper led to dramatic consequences such as banning these medications for infected patients and to the immediate interruption of related clinical trials. However, it did not take long to demonstrate that data collection and analysis methodology in that paper was somewhat dubious. This was not only revealed by peers but also by journalists casting some doubts on the scrutiny in the publication process as some errors were clear when taking a closer look at the data. This article is still online with big red capital letters 'RETRACTED'.

The second manuscript in the New England Journal of Medicine caused apprehension in most clinicians as it reported, from about nine-thousands patients, that an underlying cardiovascular disease would be associated with an increased risk of in-hospital deaths among patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Published before the first paper, it relied on the same data collection and – again – it is still online with only a small note 'This article has been retracted'. The reason for retraction was 'Because all the authors were not granted access to the raw data and the raw data could not be made available to a third-party auditor, we are unable to validate the primary data sources underlying our article'.

These scenarios immediately caused a feeling of uncertainty: could this have been avoided? Publishing a scientific work has consequences not only for the scientific community but for the entire society.  Peer reviewing is crucial as criticism and suggestions from experts are essential to the work itself but also to the research thereof. Reviewers have the mandate to dig into data and understand all information in a scientific manuscript before it becomes publicly available. So, if a sense of responsibility and rigor is requested to reviewers, it is legitimate to ask ourselves what went wrong in the above-mentioned cases and how to prevent similar drawbacks in the future.

At the ESMO Virtual Congress 2020, a dedicated session on SARS-Cov-2 and cancer will see a number of high-quality studies presented, showing that making good research is feasible even during challenging times like those that we are all living in.  

Without any doubt, this pandemic has led to unprecedented circumstances in how research is conducted and also how it can be made public through scientific publications.

Researchers are not immune from making mistakes, especially when they are under pressure to make their manuscripts published in high-impact journals, as this may influence their academic careers. However, it would be nice to see a change in the metrics of how researchers and scientists are judged. Also, the ethics of science should guide researchers as well as reviewers and journal editors to improve knowledge and trustworthy science, which is vital to health.

Don’t miss:

  • Proffered Paper - SARS-CoV-2 and cancer 1, 19.09.2020, h. 14:25 – 16:05, Channel 3
  • Proffered Paper - SARS-CoV-2 and cancer 2, 20.09.2020, h. 16:20 - 18:00, Channel 2

This site uses cookies. Some of these cookies are essential, while others help us improve your experience by providing insights into how the site is being used.

For more detailed information on the cookies we use, please check our Privacy Policy.

Customise settings
  • Necessary cookies enable core functionality. The website cannot function properly without these cookies, and you can only disable them by changing your browser preferences.