COVID-19: Data not validated by scientific journals are disseminated by the media

  • Hervé Maisonneuve, MD

  • Editorial
El acceso al contenido completo es sólo para profesionales sanitarios registrados. El acceso al contenido completo es sólo para profesionales sanitarios registrados.

There was a time when scientific journals refused to consider manuscripts whose data had been communicated to the public

In 1969, John F Ingelfinger, editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, proposed a policy that was quickly adopted by most scientific journals in all fields. This rule, which was revised in 1991 on the occasion of the AIDS epidemic, generally satisfied the scientific community. The commitment of the journals was not to consider or publish manuscripts whose results had been presented to the media, or already published, except at congresses. This rule was respected for a long time; it was based on the principle that the journals, through their peer-review and quality control process, ensured the validity of the data disclosed. Critics thought that it was more a matter of protecting an economic model.

COVID-19 has been a major accelerator of preprints

With the advent of open archives of preprints, the Ingelfinger rule is no longer respected. The “author’s manuscript” is the initial version of the research report, before submission to a journal. This version, which precedes evaluation by an editorial board, is called a “prepublication” or “preprint”. It does not include any changes made by the author after peer-review, nor does it include corrections or layout by a publisher. Preprint platforms started with arXiv in 1991 for physicists, which was quickly adopted. It was not until late 2013 that biologists began to adopt preprints with bioRxiv, and then the second half of 2019 saw the medical community discovering preprints with medRxiv.

In April 2020, preprints were used without reservation for research around SARS-CoV-2, while doctors were more reserved in consulting such archives. There are differences between preprints and articles published in a scientific journal and caution is required. Any open archive of preprints has a disclaimer: “Preprints are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behaviour, or be reported in news media as established information.”

The media do not adequately verify their sources, and do not take precautions before releasing research results

The media, the public, politicians and even health professionals discuss preprints as soon as they are put online, often forgetting that these manuscripts have not been subject to any scientific evaluation or validation by a review committee. Some preprints are misleading, or even lack good scientific practice or a base of proper scientific integrity. In principle, the open archive verifies that the manuscript put online is in the form of a research report, and does not contain sexist, privileged, insulting, or other inappropriate statements. The volume of preprints submitted during the current pandemic is about 60 per day.

Too many discussions have been fueled by preprints, without acknowledging the prior reservations with this type of data dissemination. Sometimes results even appear on social networks before a manuscript is available.

The worst example of this was observed with comments made by Professor Luc Montagnier on the origin of SARS-CoV-2, who said it was created by man. These remarks were based on an article published in a very obscure Indian journal: International Journal of Research - Granthaalaya. This is a misleading publication, otherwise known as a predatory journal, lacking peer review, with a puppet editorial board and experts from numerous disciplines (including engineers, agronomists, architects, dentists, economists...). The article is poorly written, unclear, close to fake news. The author is a 72-year-old mathematician who was a pioneer of neuroinformatics in the 1980s, i.e. artificial intelligence. According to him, he has been working on the numerical structure of DNA under the interested observation of Luc Montagnier for thirty years. He is neither a biologist, nor a geneticist, nor a virologist...Any journalist or informed citizen can see from the article that it is of very poor quality...But media weathervanes do not check their sources.

The Ingelfinger rule is obsolete, despite its useful rationale, allowing only validated data to be disseminated, even though the shortcomings of the peer-review have been widely discussed. Social networks rarely validate information.