It must be recognized that science has been spared this reflection work until now if only to have found effective vaccines in record time, it has nevertheless shown some worrying signs.
The best example is the “Bik-Raoult case”. In early 2020, when French physician Didier Raoult published his famous study claiming that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was effective against COVID-19, Dutch microbiologist and scientific integrity expert Elizabeth Bik denounced a conflict of interest (one of the co-authors was editor of the journal where the study was published, New Microbes and New Infections) and serious methodological shortcomings, which turned out to be entirely true. But this earned Ms. Bik a lawsuit as well as a campaign of cyberstalking from some members of Dr. Raoult’s team – which continues to this day – in addition to death threats.
This event is of course distressing, but there is reason to believe that it may illustrate a more systemic problem. Indeed, the same scenario started again shortly after around ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug, also elevated by some researchers to the rank of miracle molecule.
Similarly, the illusion of efficacy came from studies that were totally questionable, even fraudulent, as researchers reported in Nature Medicine and on their blogs. But the damage was done.
But the fact that these two drugs were eventually abandoned indicates that the self-correcting scientific system works quite well. But it also has flaws, and the pandemic has shown how easy they are to exploit.
Subsequently, some researchers have started their own scholarly journals in order to publish themselves, which distorts the peer review that is supposed to ensure the quality of what enters the literature.
In 2017, a report by France’s Haut Conseil de l’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur found that the journal New Microbes and New Infections was set up in 2013 to publish studies by Dr. Raoult’s team that were rejected by others.
To prove these facts , no less than 32% of the articles in this journal were co-authored by the Marseille-based infectious disease specialist and 31% by an editor of the journal who works for Dr. Raoult.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. A team led by French pharmacologist Clara Locher found a dozen medical journals where 11-22% of articles were co-authored by the same author – who is often the editor-in-chief. The pandemic has exposed a “new type of illegitimate scholarly publication,” she concluded: self-promoting journals.
We can find more evidence that “fraudsters” can get away with it for a long time. Currently, the Retraction Watch site lists nearly 200 retracted studies on COVID-19, not to mention cases of researchers who have accumulated dozens of retractions over the course of their careers (even more than 100!), some of which occurred years after their deaths.
Despite the fact that these publications have been indicted and removed from the archives, these studies continue to attract attention both in the scientific literature – where they are sometimes cited without regard to their retraction – and on social networks, mentioned a study recently published in PLOS ONE.
No plausible solutions exist. Protecting whistleblowers would be a good start, but what would be the best solution?
Perhaps creating teams of scientists who, like Ms. Bik, would specialize in detecting serious misconduct or establishing a list of “recognized” scholarly journals.
The police solution has obvious limits: for science to progress properly, researchers must have the greatest possible freedom of expression.
Moreover, part of the problem seems to stem from the pressure to publish and the traditional ways of evaluating the work of researchers, where the quantity of studies is privileged over the quality. This too is not easy to change.
The work is huge but other pandemics are expected and it is better to be ready at this moment to save our children.