COVID-19: More retractions in journals than preprints

The Retraction Watch database was used to identify retracted preprints and journal articles

The Retraction Watch database was used to identify retracted preprints and journal articles

Emergency use authorization, pharmaceutical companies announcing clinical trial results first through press releases, free access to all COVID-19 scientific articles published in journals, and a sharp increase in the number of preprints published have become more common during the pandemic. With the exception of free access to all COVID-19 articles in journals, which otherwise would have been behind paywalls, all others have come under heavy criticism at some point.

According to a comment in The Lancet, an average of 39.5 COVID-19 preprints were published each day during the pandemic, compared to only 10.5 per day during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Additionally, the first preprint was published just 22 days after the notification by the health authorities of the first group of cases. in Wuhan, China. In contrast, no preprints were published for about six months after the first cluster notifications in the case of Ebola virus and Zika virus.

At the start of the pandemic, bioRxiv added a banner on its personal diary and above every preprint discussing COVID-19. The banner read: “bioRxiv publishes many articles related to COVID. A reminder: they have not been formally peer-reviewed and should not guide health-related behaviors or be reported in the press as conclusive.” The decision to publish the disclaimer was prompted by a highly questionable study by Indian researchers posted on the preprint server bioRxiv, which was quickly removed.

Scientists submit their first drafts to the preprint server, where an internal team weeds out “obvious spam and junk” as well as submissions that aren’t scientific in nature, Richard Sever, co-founder of the bioRxiv preprint server, was quoted as said following the study of Indian scholars.

“Aware Readers”

Since the preprints have not yet been peer-reviewed, most journals, while detailing the results published on the preprint servers, warned their readers that the study in question had not yet been peer-reviewed. by peers. The idea is that since the preprints have not yet been reviewed by experts in the field before being published, readers should exercise caution and not take the study results at face value. On the other hand, the results and conclusions of all articles published in journals after the scientific verification process are deemed to be reliable and correct.

A small study of preprints and retracted journal articles on and about COVID-19 has turned those notions upside down. A team led by Dr Jitendra Kumar Meena from AIIMS, Delhi, found that there were more articles published in journals after peer review that were retracted than preprints – 143 journal articles reviewed by retracted peers against only 40 retracted preprints.

The results of this study have been published as a preprint on the medRxiv server; preprints still need to be peer-reviewed. The researchers looked at the following preprint servers that published studies on COVID-19 – medrRxiv, bioRxiv, arXiv, Social Science Research Network (SSRN), OSF Preprints and Research Square.

Reasons for withdrawal

Retracted COVID-19 preprints and journal articles published between January 1, 2020 and March 10, 2022 were identified based on alerts published by the Retraction Watch database. According to the authors, concerns about data and results were the most common reason for withdrawal of preprints, while spurious peer review and article duplication were the reasons for withdrawal of peer-reviewed articles. According to the authors, six journals accounted for nearly 35% of all retractions among peer-reviewed articles. In the case of preprints, most retracted studies were published on medRxiv (23 studies, 57.5%), followed by SSRN (eight papers, 20%) and bioRxiv (seven preprints, 17.5%) .

This peer review process has broken down and is best exemplified by the countless manipulated images that accompany many articles. The PubPeer website, a post-publication peer review by independent scientists, provides daily evidence of the failure of the journal peer review process.

While preprints and journal articles were freely available from the day the results were posted/published, it took significantly fewer days for a preprint to be pulled compared to journal articles. According to the study, the median retraction time for preprint was 29 days, while it was 139 days for peer-reviewed articles. Faster retraction by preprint servers meant that readers became aware that the results of a particular preprint were unreliable and therefore saved time. Unlike traditional journal articles, any reader is free to critique the study immediately after the manuscript is posted on the preprint server. The comments section, after the manuscript, therefore served to alert other scientists, and especially journalists, to the problems with the study. The authors conclude, “Increased adoption of preprints leads to faster identification of erroneous articles compared to the traditional peer review process.”

Flawed studies exposed

Preprints, especially during the pandemic, facilitated rapid dissemination of results. But because they were not peer-reviewed, they had the potential to disseminate erroneous research results to a wide audience. But rapid, open, and transparent peer review by hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists around the world has revealed flawed preprint studies in a very short time. For example, a virology “study” posted on the bioRxiv preprint server by researchers from IIT Delhi and the University of Delhi falsely claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus contained HIV “insertions”. The “study” was widely criticized on the preprint server, Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Preprint server bioRxiv alone carried 135 comments from scientists criticizing the study. The preprint was quickly taken down.

Beginning of March 2020, The New England Journal of Medicine published correspondence claiming that a Chinese lady transmitted the virus to her German hosts during the incubation period, even without showing symptoms. While asymptomatic people can spread the virus, the virus became clear later in the pandemic, but the authors had erroneously concluded asymptomatic spread of the virus without checking whether the Chinese lady had symptoms when she visited in Germany. The newspaper provided an additional appendix with details of symptoms and timeline which made it clear that she had symptoms while in Germany and therefore was not a case of asymptomatic spread of the virus to his German hosts.

Additionally, a paper published in a journal by a Chinese team based on the codons favored by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and other potential intermediate hosts found that two snakes – Bungarus multicinctus (the multi-banded krait) and Naja atra (the Chinese cobra) – sold in the Wuhan seafood and animal market were likely to be wild animal reservoirs for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The article was published on January 22, 2020 in the Journal of Medical Virology. However, this was a non-peer-reviewed early access article published in the journal.

“Wider and faster range”

“The present study shows that there is another benefit to encouraging people to put their work on preprint servers in the form of earlier recognition of errors and open review leading to rapid retractions. As we move forward, the scientific community should promote preprints because they offer wider and faster reach, more attention, and rapid peer feedback,” the authors conclude.