Lead author Michael Reade from the University of Queensland said they found that the rush to get information about the virus into the public domain saw the overall standard of research drop to concerning levels.
“There’s been a lot of commentary over the last few months that the quality of the medical literature decreased in the context of the pandemic, so we wanted to test that,” he said.
“We compared publications from the first five months of 2020 with the same period in 2019.
“There was obviously interest in COVID-19. People wanted to read about it so the journals wanted to publish, but there wasn’t time to enroll patients in randomised trials in the first few months so instead, there were lots of individual case reports and descriptions of what people were seeing.”
That was understandable, Professor Reade said, but the trouble was that the research being published was not subjected to the same scrutiny it normally would be.
The analysis found only one of the five journals studied reported the time it took for research to go from submission to publication, which in that case, was slashed from 139 days in 2019 to 23 days in 2020.
It also found that in 2019, 35 per cent of the papers published used the “gold standard” of randomised controlled trials to get their results, compared with just 5 per cent in 2020 during the pandemic.
Professor Reade said the lowering of quality was borne out by the fact there was a three-fold increase in the number of corrections issued, while three papers published over the five months studied were retracted.
That included a paper on the dangers of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the worst symptoms of the virus, which was found to have serious issues with its data.
“The process of peer review has given [medical journals] a degree of authenticity and veracity that all that other stuff doesn’t have,” Professor Reade said.
“So if you’re going to erode the value of that, then you really start to question what the journals add to this whole process.”
Professor Reade and his colleagues argue that journals need to put in place processes to be able to rapidly disseminate information relevant to a health crisis without sacrificing the quality of the research.
They suggest a range of options, including having a two-track process for reviewing pandemic and non-pandemic papers, and changing the structure of reviews to allow less senior academic experts to review papers to ease the burden on more senior ones.
“I think as the research into the pandemic has matured, into 2021 the quality of the research will also improve,” Professor Reade said.
“In a way, the point of this paper is not so much for COVID-19, it’s for the next one. When the next major health crisis arises, rather than pumping out a whole lot of substandard work, we might do this a bit better.”
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.