Keep it Safe-Research Data

In last few months, we have seen a rush of circulation of COVID-19 pre-prints and publications. However, it is not only in the scientific community but also on social network platform. In so many years of being a scientist, I have never spotted my non-academic friends and family sharing screenshots of research articles, until this pandemic happened. I am amazed, how a common man has challenged his grey cells in last four months to understand scientific literature with a straightforward purpose of finding an answer. I felt more humbled when they trusted my experience to explain the ongoing research on the Coronavirus biology or the progress of the vaccine development. On the other hand, I felt disappointed as a part of the scientific community, we could not live up to that expectation. A span of time which could have been a junction between the two worlds of insight, somehow got swamped with incomplete studies, flawed experimental designs, unrefined pre-prints, misleading information, and finally retractions from two of the best journals in the world.

As researchers we are constantly reminded of our responsibility towards our work ethics. We are frequently trained and informed about the various perils of publishing something which is less than truth. The authenticity of a new finding is fact checked and scrutinized at various stages, until it is made public through a peer reviewed process of a scientific journal. However, what went haywire during this pandemic, was the competitive pressure to publishing the finding ASAP. While a lot of well renowned scientists banked on massive multinational collaborative projects for data acquisition and evaluation, some relied on third party data provider like Surgical Outcomes Collaborative (Surgisphere). This is what led to the high-profile retractions on COVID-19 research in Lancet and New England Journal. One study showed that the side effects of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on the COVID-19 patients whereas the other study showed that the common blood-pressure drugs were safe to use on infected people. In both the studies there were huge problems with validation of the raw data, which is usually the laying stone of any scientific study. In the retraction notice of the blood pressure drug study it was posted that “because all the authors were not granted access to the raw data and the raw data could not be made available to a third-party auditor, we are unable to validate the primary data sources underlying our article” (1). So, as understood this becomes a dead end when you have no way to authenticate the source of your data.

Both are among the most respected medical journals in the world and retraction from these journals shows the kind of vulnerability we are facing in terms of scientific rigor. Specially, these kinds of researches are so critical that they influence the policies of WHO and huge drug companies. Retractions like this not only affects progress of clinical trials but also threatens public trust upon scientific research. However, the silver lining in these two retractions is that, it shows the genuine concern of the publishers to correct the scientific advancement despite its heavy price and this is commendable. It is extremely difficult for a journal not to stand by their own peer review process and to accept the mistakes. According to Retraction watch, currently there are 22 COVID-19 related scientific literatures permanently retracted along with some studies showing expression of concern (2). All of these have some issues of data reporting or evaluation.

There is a difference between security and secrecy. The data generated in the lab is supposed to be secured but not hidden. We are recommended to keep data organized with backups, just like any other treasures of ours, so that we can go back to it when needed rather than lost forever. I hope the expedite COVID-19 research does not takes place at the cost of quality and critical peer review.

1. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2007621

2. https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/

Still exploring and trying to find the right question 🛤