Two major study retractions in one month have left researchers wondering if the peer review process is broken
One study promised that popular blood-pressure drugs were safe for people infected with the coronavirus. Another paper warned that anti-malaria drugs endorsed by President Trump actually were dangerous to these patients.
The studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, were retracted shortly after publication, following an outcry from researchers who saw obvious flaws.
The hasty retractions, on the same day this month, have alarmed scientists worldwide who fear that the rush for research on the coronavirus has overwhelmed the peer review process and opened the door to fraud, threatening the credibility of respected medical journals just when they are needed most.
Peer review is supposed to safeguard the quality of scientific research. When a journal receives a manuscript, the editors ask three or more experts in the field for comments. The reviewers’ written assessments may force revisions in a paper or prompt the journal to reject the work altogether. The system, widely adopted by medical journals in the middle of the 20th century, undergirds scientific discourse around the world.
“The problem with trust is that it’s too easy to lose and too hard to get back,” said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, which published one of the retracted papers in early May. “These are big blunders.”
If outside scientists detected problems that weren’t identified by the peer reviewers, then the journals failed, he said. Like hundreds of other researchers, Dr. Kassirer called on the editors to publish full explanations of what happened.