Grab a shovel: How the over 65K published articles on COVID can teach us to be better scientists.

On July 23rd 2020 there were a reported total 66,883 peer reviewed open access articles on the novel coronavirus COVID-19. That does not include the 19,420 preprints that have also been reported. So let’s say we are at over 85K publications about COVID-19 in 2020. I don’t know about you, but that sounds out of control to me! Amongst all the wonderful data that I am sure is out there, we have to reconsider what is actually going on here.

An article published on the site has listed 25 retracted and 3 temporarily retracted articles on COVID-19.

I think this shines a light on a larger problem that is plaguing the scientific community, we are seeing the same thing in politics. It is not enough to be right, you just need to be first. If you read scientific literature you risk being misinformed, but if you don’t read and do your research then you are uninformed. So where do we find ourselves?

I was drawn to a particular article published in Nature Molecular and Cellular Immunology entitled SARS-CoV-2 infects T lymphocytes through its spike protein-mediated membrane fusion. This paper was accepted in 3 days! 3 days! It was retracted 3 months later because the investigators used a T-cell line instead of primary T-cells. What is worse is that this paper was accessed 225 thousand times and cited 38 times between its publication date on April 7, 2020 and its retraction date on July 10, 2020.

Now during a pandemic such as this we need to get information out as quickly as we get it but there has to be some kind of professional courtesy and accountability, especially at this level of publication. Haven’t we already learned our lesson about this with the twists and false reports about how vaccines cause autism? As for the paper mentioned above, it is entirely possible that the mechanism is conserved between the cell line and the primary cells, but we do not get to make that assumption, not now, not ever! As scientists we are responsible for creating the next generation of treatments, the health in the world is in our hands.

Let us learn one more lesson from COVID and remind ourselves that our work is not just about getting tenure or winning a grant, we are the experts in science and medicine and have a professional responsibility to the people. Our work can directly influence treatment plans and the healthcare of the people and we need to consider what we publish and how we publish it. Lets take that extra step and make sure we keep a high standard of scientific rigor and responsibility.

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