The Rush to Publish COVID-19 Research Saw Errors Triple

New research published today in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)  has thrown some light on the compromises made in the publication processes of medical journals, a consequence of the rush for new research on COVID-19. 9 News has more:

The research examined five medical journals considered to be the most critical to informing global health policy and clinical practices: the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the British Medical Journal and the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The analysis compared 134 research papers published between January 1st and May 31st this year to 54 published during the same period in 2019.

The research found that:

  • One in five COVID-19 studies published by the journals during the first five months of the pandemic had corrections issued after publication. This compares to 7.4% of published during the same period last year
  • Three studies had to be retracted altogether, including a highly publicised hydroxychloroquine trial published in the Lancet. This led to a temporary cessation of the WHO trial into hydroxychloroquine. No such retractions were made in 2019.
  • Just 5% of the coronavirus trials were randomised controlled trials – considered the “gold standard” of medical research – compared to 35% of the 2019 trials.
  • The timeframe given to review, approve and publish trials was drastically reduced. In the case of JAMA, the only journal to release data for this, the average timeframe from first submission to publication fell from 139 days to just 23.
  • Close to half of the COVID-19 studies did not explicitly state that consent was obtained from trial participants. A number of articles also stated that they were granted exemptions from the requirement for ethical review due to the nature of the pandemic.

The study’s lead author, Professor Michael Reade of the University of Queensland, said:

In the new information age, it’s a great thing that people can disseminate information really quickly. You can put a paper up online, you can read these things really quickly, but the other side of that is that by the time it gets into a journal, if journals are going to add anything to this process, it needs to be that they give the stamp of approval that it’s true.

Quite. And it is surely during such times as the last few months that the reliability of papers published in prestigious medical journals matters most. The 9 News article is worth reading in full.

The MJA article has a number of suggestions for facilitating the rapid dissemination of information, without compromising its quality, ethical standards or oversight, including:

A two-track review process for pandemic and non-pandemic research, rapid preliminary assessment of research methodology by skilled in-house reviewers before deciding whether to send for peer review, sharing of peer-reviews between reviewers and journals, and mentored peer reviewing by research trainees.

The MJA article is also worth reading in full.