Rushed publication comes with risk.


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The urgent need for effective treatments and evidence to guide the care of COVID-19 patients has resulted in a torrent of research reports. According to an online article in Science, by mid-May over 23,000 papers on the novel coronavirus had been published and that number was doubling every 20 days. Studies are being expedited through peer review; a process that usually takes six to nine months now happens in as little as 48 hours. Additionally, thousands of papers have been posted on preprint servers without any review beforehand.


The lack of thorough prepublication review increases the risk of flawed studies influencing clinical care to the detriment of patients. The problem of rushed publication received widespread attention recently with the retraction of a study published online on May 22 in the Lancet that found increased mortality in COVID-19 patients receiving the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Clinicians and researchers immediately raised concerns about the findings, including questions about the integrity of the data. The study used data from Surgisphere, a proprietary database owned by Mandeep Mehra, lead author on the study. When authors not involved in the data collection asked for an independent audit of the dataset, Surgisphere refused to release it. In response, the Lancet retracted the study on June 4, but not before numerous clinical trials of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine had been suspended, including the World Health Organization's global megatrial of potential COVID-19 treatments.


During the same time period, COVID-19 studies were also retracted by two other respected journals, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine. Retraction Watch, a website that monitors retractions of published scientific papers, has tallied 30 retracted COVID-19 studies in the six months since the pandemic started.


New knowledge in an ongoing medical crisis should be disseminated as quickly as possible, but the imperative to do so must be balanced by review methods to ensure that only high-quality, ethical research is published. Publication of flawed studies has serious implications for the timely development of effective treatments and a COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, these studies damage the credibility of all research as well as public trust in science, which is critical for containing the pandemic.-Karen Roush, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, news director