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Covid-19 and academic research: a crisis in science?

Covid-19 is a crisis on different levels and also affects research institutions and academic journals. With the recent retraction of Covid-related articles from highly reputable journals, the corona pandemic seems to amplify flaws in the academic publishing system that have already been known for several years.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only leading to an economic and public health crisis, but also affects research institutions. Let’s take two examples to illustrate what can be called a crisis in science.

First, the WHO and national institutions that follow WHO guidelines have insisted that social distancing is key in preventing the spread of the virus, based on the idea that the virus is transmitted through droplets when people cough or sneeze. However, there have been commentators who have insisted for several months already that the virus could also be spread – possibly even primarily – by tiny particles suspended in the air, the so-called aerosols.

The WHO only changed its position when a letter was published early July, signed by more than 200 scientists who pointed at studies that had demonstrated “beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1 to 2 m from an infected individual”. This insight about aerosols will likely change the guidelines for indoor spaces and ventilation systems, also with a view to preventing a possible second wave in autumn.

While it is unclear why the WHO took such a long time to recognize a situation that had been apparent to many for quite some time, some consider that the cumbersome academic process of double-blind peer review could be to blame and that this inflexible process is not suitable in crisis situations. Equally unexplainable is that the WHO’s three-foot social distancing recommendation goes back to work done in the 1930s by William Wells, a Harvard researcher who studied tuberculosis. Those who looked at this research, however, do not find evidence of the effectiveness of social distancing – rather the opposite. Wells is said to have concluded that “droplet infections are primarily airborne; airborne epidemics are absent from an ecological population provided with adequate air hygiene”. This again suggests that the focus should be on ventilation, not social distancing.

The second example to illustrate the “crisis in science” is the retraction of a study analysing the effects of hydroxychloroquine in combatting Covid-19 by the highly reputable journal The Lancet. The study did not hold up to scrutiny after the authors expressed concerns about the quality and veracity of their data. Later another Covid-19 article was pulled by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Covid-19 crisis seems to amplify the flaws in the academic publishing system that had been noted by an editor of The Lancet as early as 2015: “the case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects … and flagrant conflicts of interests, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness”.

This turn towards darkness is particularly problematic considering official warnings that there is only light at the end of the corona tunnel if we commit to the government and WHO guidelines collectively. Citizens’ trust in these guidelines is seriously compromised if we cannot rely on the independence of science.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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