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An expert’s opinion: An interview with Adam Marcus on scientific publishing in times of COVID-19

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Adam Marcus, Co-founder of Retraction Watch and managing editor of Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, highlights the need to be vigilant about the quality of COVID-19 research papers and encourages publishers to publish fewer but better-quality papers.


How many COVID-19 papers have been retracted so far this year?

Our latest count is 37 retractions and three temporary retractions. There are also at least 3 expressions of concern, which may lead to retraction, and some preprints that have been withdrawn. Overall, thousands of papers are put on preprint servers and published each year, we don’t know the exact denominator, but we do know that the number of retractions has been increasing every year. There are now roughly 1,500 retractions a year. It is still to early to know if COVID-19 papers follow this trend.


What are the consequences of researchers making their work on COVID-19 available immediately as preprints?

I think that there is always a disclaimer on news articles written about preprints stating that the work hasn’t been peer reviewed, as if peer review were the imprimatur of quality, which it isn’t. Peer review has many flaws, but it is better than nothing. Covering preprint server data in the lay media is risky, but I don’t think I can point to particular studies that have led to public misconceptions about the pandemic. In the US, most misconceptions come from one or two single sources in government rather than the media. Nevertheless, preprints do have the potential of getting information in front of the public that just isn’t reliable or robust.


How are publishers dealing with the increase in submissions?

Big publishers have the luxury to be able to add staff and/or invest in AI functionality to speed up the peer review process and increase their output. Some publishers have increased the number of articles published by up to 11%. Given that the number of published papers that get read by more than a few people is very small, the solution is not to publish more papers, but better ones. It seems frightening in a way, there is so much information, some of it is disinformation, some of it is misinformation, some of it is good information … will it all balance out in the end? It will be interesting to look back and see whether scientists and the media have worked well together to communicate findings effectively.


How can we improve the quality of the science that is being published and use it to best effect?

We need better systems for peer review, whether it is artificially aided [AI] or just rethinking how we approach it. We should move away from the model that allows researchers to suggest peer reviewers. If journals are getting reviewer suggestions from authors, they should be more diligent in making sure that these are real people. Journals should also be paying more attention to possible image manipulation and to the statistical methods used to spot clear examples of misconduct before publication rather than after. All this requires time, which comes back to the idea that they should publish less in order to make sure that what is published is rigorous. There is also some evidence that paying peer reviewers could lead to better quality papers. However, I don’t think that there is one solution, there are lots of little changes we can make to raise the overall quality of the review system and of the outputs. In terms of putting this knowledge into practice, first and foremost we need politicians who value science and expertise.


Can we expect any changes in the coming months?

I think that as we move through different stages of the pandemic, the outputs will shift. I suspect we will see a lot more papers on vaccine-related issues and on the long-term effects of infection in the coming months. We will have to remain vigilant. If you look at the databases of COVID papers, you’ll see scientists improbably high numbers of papers about COVID-19 produced in a very small amount of time. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. We are living in a time of unprecedented scientific achievement. I’d much rather be living through a pandemic in 2019, than in 1919 or 1719!

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