An explosion of life sciences research around the coronavirus pandemic has driven a commensurate increase in scrutiny and retractions of scientific journal articles.

Higher retraction rates of preprint and peer-reviewed scientific papers about COVID have concerned some researchers who say the topic has become inordinately political and subject to inappropriate censorship.

After two years of various lockdown and isolation strategies, 5.97 million deaths, and the development of several innovative, but what some deem leaky, vaccines, censorship of COVID research is a high-stakes matter.

Instances of Politicization and Censorship Make COVID Researchers Wary

Early revelations that some of the world’s most influential journals sought to suppress or slant reports suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was a man-made virus that escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or about alternative COVID therapies have led to broader concerns about journal retraction policies.

The world’s scientists are still working to understand fundamental mysteries about COVID, including its origin, its genomic structure, its mechanisms of action, best treatments and therapies, and most advantageous public health responses.

COVID has also generated unprecedented interest in science at a time when humanity has tools at its disposal – tools that did not exist during the Spanish Flu pandemic or the early days of HIV-AIDS – to disseminate knowledge instantaneously and universally.

Social Media Increases COVID Scholarship’s Velocity

Social media platforms have democratized what was once an insulated, arcane world of scientific research journals, and even preprint servers, and made them available, often in PDF format, to new expert and lay audiences.

The velocity of information in the COVID-era has exposed deficiencies in many article vetting systems at some of the world’s most prestigious journals and, arguably, has called into question fundamental traditions around scientific peer review.

COVID Research Retraction Studies

Concerns about scientific misconduct and censorship have given rise to a series of COVID-19 research retraction studies.

One of the most cited of these recent studies was published in June 2020 in the peer-reviewed Accountability in Research Journal, an imprint of Taylor and Francis.

Retraction Watch Database

The authors searched the Retraction Watch database for retraction records associated with COVID-19 publications by using keyword “COVID-19” and other searches. At the time, the authors found 17 articles which had been fully withdrawn or retracted and tagged with editorial expressions of concern or issued with a corrigendum.

In one case authors wrote they “… deeply apologize for this premature publication.” In other cases, retraction notices cited authors’ faulty reliance on theoretical deductions instead of evidence. Retractions were found across different types of journals, including some as well-known as Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine.

Study Finds COVID Studies Are Retracted More Often Than Other Research

Overall, the retraction survey authors calculated total retractions retrieved by searching for “COVID-19” in PubMed, a free search engine on top of the MEDLINE database maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, was 74 articles out of 10,000.

That retraction rate far exceeded all historical article retraction rates for articles addressing other pandemics or sicknesses, which ranged from 4 retractions out of 17,378 published journal articles about H1N1 to 1,616 retractions of 4.1 million published articles about cancer as of June 2020 PubMed searches.

The authors surmise that the rush of COVID science may have led to mistakes and, thus, a historically high number of legitimate retractions.

Preprint Servers May Lead to More Retractions

“The limited number of truly qualified peer reviewers is themselves working hard on their own research and papers, which may result in the task of reviewing COVID-19 manuscripts being taken on by reviewers who are not particularly equipped with domain expertise, and therefore not as perceptively critical,” they wrote. “Furthermore, the proliferation of preprint submissions has greatly enhanced the visibility of papers which have not undergone peer review.”

A letter last month that three Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center researchers wrote to the editors of the American Journal of Medical Science about the pandemic’s “unprecedented volume of research, with over 125,000 articles published or released in the first 10 months of the pandemic.”

Speed of Retractions Has Increased

The authors also noted the unusually high number of article retractions, as well as the speed of withdrawals – an average of three months – compared to the typical two to three years between publication and retraction of peer-reviewed papers.

The authors found no significant difference, however, between the retraction rates of COVID papers versus research about other pandemics like H1N1.

Social Media Ensures Retracted Studies Reach Broad Audience

Two other recent surveys of COVID research retractions, however, underscored the accelerated velocity of COVID scholarship. A February study in the Journal of Korean Medical Science looked at social media uptake of retracted COVID research. The authors found that 22 retracted articles had significant audiences on Twitter and other social media platforms after retraction.

The Leading Sources of Retracted COVID Studies

January article in the Journal of the Medical Library Association looked at 39 retracted COVID articles’ dissemination on social media platforms since February 2020. Mendeley and Twitter were the main purveyors of retracted studies sharing 40 retracted COVID articles a total of 8,991 times and 38 retracted articles a total of 69,106 times, respectively. The study showed that the nation that tweeted retracted studies most often was the United States, followed by the United Kingdom. “Members of the public” were the source of 94 percent of tweets of retracted COVID articles, followed by “scientists” who were responsible for 3.3 percent of tweets. Medical practitioners accounted for 1.5 of tweets of retracted articles while 0.9 percent of retracted works came from “science communicators” including journalists and bloggers.

“Researchers” were the most prolific sharers of retracted COVID studies on Mendeley, comprising 14 percent or a total of 1,247 shares compared to bachelor’s students who accounted for 11.3 percent or 1,002 shares of retracted articles, followed by master’s students and doctoral students. The most unlikely sharers of retracted COVID studies were librarians and professional academics.

PLoS ONE Explores Why COVID Articles Are Retracted

Finally, an October 2021 PloS ONE COVID article retraction study investigated various bases for 46 retracted COVID articles as of December 2020 from scientific journals and preprint servers.

“Thirty-one articles (67%) were published in 31 unique scientific journals and 15 were published on the preprint servers bioRxiv, medRxiv, and SSRN,” the survey authors wrote. :”Of the 31 articles published by scientific journals, 8 were retracted by the authors, 14 were retracted by the journal (i.e., the editors and/or publisher), 6 were retracted by an unspecified combination of the authors and journal, while the retractor was unclear for 3 articles.”

Causes of retractions varied. Ten retractions (22%) were related to research misconduct or noncompliance with research or publication standards, including the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine studies involving Surgisphere’s datasets. The Surgisphere anomalies immediately got the attention of this platform

Nine retractions (20%) were retracted to be updated with new information, including comments received during peer review. Most of these articles were on preprint servers. 

Four articles (9%) had data or analytical errors, six articles were duplicates, and in 15 cases the causes for retraction were unclear.

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