Medical journal peer-review process questioned after study retractions

Amid a push to quickly publish new findings on the coronavirus to improve patient care, scientists are concerned the pace may be negatively affecting the peer-review process and credibility of medical journals, according to The New York Times.

The concerns come after two studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, were retracted in one month, the newspaper reported.

One of the studies said anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine isn't safe for COVID-19 patients. The other suggested popular blood-pressure drugs were safe for infected people. Both studies were retracted after researchers raised concerns about potential errors. The concerns also caused the World Health Organization to stop its trial of hydroxychloroquine.

Now scientists worldwide worry the research rush during the pandemic has overwhelmed the peer-review process and may be threatening the credibility of journals, the NYT reports.  

"There is always a tension between getting it fast and getting it right," Marcia Angell, MD, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, told the newspaper. "I always favored getting it right. But in the current pandemic, that balance may have shifted too far toward getting it fast."

Peer review involves receiving input from experts to help medical journals determine the quality of the research and whether to publish or reject the work. However, the newspaper notes, medical journals do not generally disclose details about the peer-review process, such as who reviewed the study.

Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, and Eric Rubin, MD, PhD, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, told the NYT their journals should not have published the studies but defended the peer-review process.

Dr. Rubin told the newspaper his journal "should have had reviewers who would recognize the problem," and that the journal is constantly considering whether publishing certain information will hurt people. Dr. Horton told the newspaper the study his journal retracted was "a monumental fraud," but the goal with the peer-review process is not to identify deliberate misleading.

Read the full NYT report here.


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