How can the Biden administration reduce scientific disinformation? Slow the high-pressure pace of scientific publishing

By Matt Field, January 12, 2021

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Getting enough sleep, eating right, socializing–any decent listicle on self-care will tell you these activities are key to living a happy and healthy life. What about getting ahead in academic science? No, in that domain, relentless productivity is what’s likely to pay off. A 2018 article in Nature examined 265 authors who had published at least 72 scientific articles in a given calendar year between 2000 and 2016–on average, that means they were publishing every five days during the year (Ioannidis, Klavans, and Boyack 2018). While these authors were “implausibly prolific,” the sciences favor researchers like them who can get their work published.

The need to keep up an intensive publication schedule might be especially acute when your scientific efforts require boatloads of government cash, and when it comes to scientific research, the government is a primary funder. “Keep in mind that your productivity, reflected by publications in reputable peer reviewed journals, is important – so don’t neglect this key aspect of your career,” reads a tip sheet on winning grants on one National Institutes of Health (NIH) website (NIAID 2020).

If only more always meant better.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen so many researchers from different disciplines churn out preprint or peer-reviewed journal articles about various aspects of the pandemic that scientists, journalist, and government health officials alike can struggle to keep up. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told National Geographic that keeping up with pandemic information was like “drinking from a fire hydrant” (Akpan and Jaggard 2020). There’s so much COVID-19 literature being published, journals including Nature and Science have published articles about how many articles are being published. One estimate, according to a May article in Science, was that 23,000 papers had been published since January (Brainard 2020).

Some of those papers have turned out to be deeply flawed. Worse: they may have had real-world impact. For example, beginning in March, President Donald Trump famously went on a months-long quest to show that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, was a strong treatment for COVID-19. He appeared to base his initial and, as it turns out, entirely unfounded optimism on a study (Piller 2020) by a prominent French research team that was apparently peer reviewed and accepted in a day, according to Elisabeth Bik, who critiques experiments on her blog Science Integrity Digest (Bik 2020).

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The Food and Drug Administration, after approving the treatment on an emergency basis, revoked its authorization in mid-June (FDA 2020). Nearly two months later, Trump was still touting the potential of “hydroxy” (Cathey 2020).

Walter Scheirer, a computer scientist at the University of Notre Dame who researches artificial intelligence and

Walter Scheirer
Walter Scheirer

disinformation, believes the COVID-19 pandemic is casting a harsh spotlight on the “publish or perish” mentality in the academic sciences. When jobs and funding depend in part on quantity, the quality can suffer. “When you look, especially with COVID-19 papers, it’s astounding,” Scheirer said. “It’s like all of a sudden we’re in a scientific Renaissance. In eight months there’s been many thousands of scientific papers on this one specific topic.”

The NIH itself is aware of how the excessive pressure to publish can cause problems.

In 2014, the agency’s director, Francis Collins, and its principal deputy director, Lawrence Tabak, penned a comment in Nature about the growing alarm among scientists that the results of published experiments weren’t reproducible. The academic incentive structure, they wrote, “currently over-emphasizes publishing in high-profile journals . . . this encourages rapid submission of research findings to the detriment of careful replication.” (Collins and Tabak 2014).

While the NIH officials highlighted a few steps they could take to reduce creating incentives for flawed science, productivity–measured by publishing in peer reviewed journals–is still highly valued. Overall, Scheirer thinks the pressure to publish could help move scientific disinformation about critical issues such as the pandemic into the pages of academic journals. Scheirer wrote about some of the different ways disinformation seeps into the scientific literature in “A pandemic of bad science,” a July 2020 article in the Bulletin (Scheirer 2020). I talked with him recently about how he thinks the Biden administration could slow down the pace of scientific publishing and produce better science and less disinformation.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Field (MF): Is there one thing you can think of that Joe Biden can do to curb disinformation?

Walter Scheirer (WS): I think a presidential administration could address this question of scientific integrity. And number one, this is really important because of the pandemic. . .How much of the scientific literature is being poisoned by disinformation? Bogus findings? It’s pretty clear that the system of scientific publication is breaking down, and part of that has to do I think with the incentives of publishing in terms of how people get grant funding.

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I think the prevailing wisdom is, if you want to get a grant from, say, the NIH, you need to publish a ton of papers and show that you’re a really productive scholar, your work is amazing, it appears in these high impact venues, not just once, but you know, several times. And that is creating this perverse incentive structure to maximize the number of publications which is flooding the publication venues and letting people sneak in bad things.

And this could have a serious public health impact. When you think about it, some of those papers are talking about vaccines, talking about dubious or bogus treatments for COVID-19 or other diseases. We’re seeing more and more of that with this pandemic. And that’s extremely alarming.

Government intervention could reform the way that the grant system works, how we fund science, how we support scientists, and also put closer scrutiny of scientific publications that are coming out of government funded research to ensure that results are not being manipulated and that claims are conforming to science, the scientific consensus. Things are really off the rails.

MF: This seems like an area that may not be as flashy as taking on disinformation on social media, but might be something the government could actually do something about?

WS: I think it’s tractable. It’s a well-defined problem. It’s largely in the government’s purview because they’re funding the research, for the most part.

MF: You would be in favor of changing how the government funds research to slow down the proliferation of junk science in journals?

WS: The NIH should have one goal and that is advancing medicine. It should not be an engine to fund the production of papers. . . . Huge changes need to happen, and I think it’s pretty straightforward.

MF: So the government should lessen the incentive to publish as much as possible?

WS: Yeah, [the government] should even go so far as: “If you’re too productive, we’re going to look at you, you know, much harsher than someone else. That’s a red flag.”

 

References

Akpan, N., and V. Jaggard. 2020 “Fauci: No Scientific Evidence the Coronavirus Was Made in a Chinese Lab.” National Geographic, May 4. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/05/anthony-fauci-no-scientificevidence-the-coronavirus-was-made-in-a-chinese-lab-cvd/#close

Bik, E. 2020. “Thoughts on the Gautret Et Al. Paper about Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin Treatment of COVID-19 Infections.” Science Integrity Digest, March 24. https://scienceintegritydigest.com/2020/03/24/thoughts-on-the-gautret-et-al-paper-about-hydroxychloroquine-andazithromycin-treatment-of-covid-19-infections/

Brainard, J. 2020. “Scientists are Drowning in COVID-19 Papers. Can New Tools Keep Them Afloat?” Science. May 13. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/scientistsare-drowning-covid-19-papers-can-new-tools-keep-themafloat

Cathey, L. 2020. “Timeline: Tracking Trump Alongside Scientific Developments on Hydroxychloroquine.” ABC News, August 8. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/timelinetracking-trump-alongside-scientific-developmentshydroxychloroquine/story?id=72170553

Collins, F. S., and L. A. Tabak. 2014. “Policy: NIH Plans to Enhance Reproducibility.” Nature 505: 612–613. https://www.nature.com/news/policy-nih-plans-to-enhance-reproducibility-1.14586

FDA (Food and Drug Administration). 2020. FDA Cautions against Use of Hydroxychloroquine or Chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the Hospital Setting or a Clinical Trial Due to Risk of Heart Rhythm Problems. June. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-cautions-against-use-hydroxychloroquine-or-chloroquine-covid-19-outside-hospital-setting-or

Ioannidis, J. P. A., R. Klavans, and K. W. Boyack. 2018. “Thousands of Scientists Publish a Paper Every Five Days.” Nature 561: 167–169. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06185-8

NIAD (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). 2020. Approaches for Staying Funded. March. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/grants-contracts/staying-funded

Piller, C. 2020. “‘This Is Insane!’ Many Scientists Lament 205 Trump’s Embrace of Risky Malaria Drugs for Coronavirus.” Science. March 26. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/insane-many-scientists-lament-trump-s-embrace-risky-malaria-drugs-coronavirus

Scheirer, W. 2020. “A Pandemic of Bad Science.” Bulletin of 210 the Atomic Scientists 76 (4): 175–184. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2020.1778361

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