The World Health Organisation has warned of the ‘infodemic’, where obsolete pieces of COVID research are still circulated and accepted as fact.
Looking back, years from now, we may reflect on the true nature of the COVID pandemic, and realise that it spread two viruses. One, in the disease itself and the other, the misinformation that that swirls around it. Now, while we can pop all the 5G-causes-COVID-that-Bill-Gates-made into the largest bin we can find, there’s another type of misinformation, the type that just sits there and lies to us.
Simply put, we’re producing so much information in order to keep ahead of the virus (and indeed, for publishers to capitalise on it), there’s a whole ecosystem of articles that continue to feature two disproven studies. In fact, Science analysed two hundred academic articles published last year that featured the two studies, and found that “more than half—including many in leading journals—used the disgraced papers to support scientific findings and failed to note the retractions.”
Elizabeth Suelzer, a reference librarian at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said that: “(COVID) is such a hot topic that publishers are willing to publish without proper vetting.”
Both of the retracted COVID-19 papers, one in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the other in The Lancet, were based on what appeared to be a huge database of patient records compiled from hospitals worldwide by Surgisphere, a small company operated by vascular surgeon Sapan Desai, who was a co-author on each article. The 22 May 2020 Lancet paper ostensibly showed that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug promoted by former President Donald Trump and others, could harm rather than help COVID-19 patients. Its publication led to a temporary halt in a major clinical trial and inflamed an already-divisive debate over the drug, which has proved to be useless against COVID-19. The 1 May NEJM article corroborated other evidence that people already taking certain blood pressure medicines did not face a greater risk of death if they developed COVID-19.
Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of the website Retraction Watch suggested that “people are either willfully or negligently not checking references…it’s frightening…it’s terrible…but common.”
He also said that many authors copy and paste lists of apparently relevant citations from similar papers without actually reading them.
Over on Lancet (who were one of the publications that ran the disgraced studies), wrote in October about the danger of misinformation in these extreme times, warning of the growing infodemic, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines as an “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that occurs during an epidemic”.
Fortunately, the WHO is doing something about it, launching a service called ‘Verified’ which endeavours “to provide content that cuts through the noise to deliver life-saving information, fact-based advice and stories from the best of humanity”.
As Jane Galvão of Lancet writes, “There is no doubt that tackling the infodemic, and initiatives such as Verified are relevant when confronting an unprecedented public health crisis, but perhaps more vigorous and innovative strategies should be developed to confront situations that can be described as calculated distortions of the truth perpetrated by certain public figures and politicians via the media, especially social media. These individuals act as though they can say whatever they want about COVID-19, spreading conspiracy theories and inaccurate information without fearing accountability.”
Hmm. Well how about you stop publishing misleading information, you lot? As Elizabeth Suelzer put it, there are websites that automatically flag obsolete studies, and thus, “the bar is pretty low”.