The Pandemic Claims New Victims: Prestigious Medical Journals
One study promised that popular blood-pressure drugs were safe for people infected with the coronavirus. Another paper warned that anti-malaria drugs endorsed by President Donald Trump actually were dangerous to these patients.
The studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, were retracted shortly after publication, following an outcry from researchers who saw obvious flaws.
The hasty retractions, on the same day last month, have alarmed scientists worldwide who fear that the rush for research on the coronavirus has overwhelmed the peer review process and opened the door to fraud, threatening the credibility of respected medical journals just when they are needed most.
Peer review is supposed to safeguard the quality of scientific research. When a journal receives a manuscript, the editors ask three or more experts in the field for comments. The reviewers’ written assessments may force revisions in a paper or prompt the journal to reject the work altogether. The system, widely adopted by medical journals in the middle of the 20th century, undergirds scientific discourse around the world.
“The problem with trust is that it’s too easy to lose and too hard to get back,” said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, which published one of the retracted papers in early May. “These are big blunders.”
If outside scientists detected problems that weren’t identified by the peer reviewers, then the journals failed, he said. Like hundreds of other researchers, Kassirer called on the editors to publish full explanations of what happened.
In interviews with The New York Times, Dr. Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, and Dr. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, said that the studies should never have appeared in their journals but insisted that the review process was still working.
“We shouldn’t have published this,” Rubin said of the study appearing in the NEJM. “We should have had reviewers who would recognize the problem.”
Horton called the paper retracted by his journal a “fabrication” and “a monumental fraud.” But peer review was never intended to detect outright deceit, he said, and anyone who thinks otherwise has “a fundamental misunderstanding of what peer review is.”
“If you have an author who deliberately tries to mislead, it’s surprisingly easy for them to do so,” he said.
In addition, the editors said, there is an urgent need to rapidly publish new findings to improve treatments for desperately ill coronavirus patients. Since the pandemic began, The Lancet is receiving three times the usual number of papers for consideration, Horton said. And the NEJM has fielded as many as 200 submissions in a day, including essays, according to Rubin.
文／Roni Caryn Rabin 譯／陳韋廷、核稿／樂慧生