5th June 2020
For The Guardian
James Heathers is a research scientist at Northeastern University in Boston MA. He studies biosignal methodology and metascience
The now retracted paper halted hydroxychloroquine trials. Studies like this determine how people live or die tomorrow
The Lancet is one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the world. Recently, they published an article on Covid patients receiving hydroxychloroquine with a dire conclusion: the drug increases heartbeat irregularities and decreases hospital survival rates. This result was treated as authoritative, and major drug trials were immediately halted – because why treat anyone with an unsafe drug?
Now, that Lancet study has been retracted, withdrawn from the literature entirely, at the request of three of its authors who “can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources”. Given the seriousness of the topic and the consequences of the paper, this is one of the most consequential retractions in modern history.
It is natural to ask how this is possible. How did a paper of such consequence get discarded like a used tissue by some of its authors only days after publication? If the authors don’t trust it now, how did it get published in the first place?
The answer is quite simple. It happened because peer review, the formal process of reviewing scientific work before it is accepted for publication, is not designed to detect anomalous data. It makes no difference if the anomalies are due to inaccuracies, miscalculations, or outright fraud. This is not what peer review is for. While it is the internationally recognised badge of “settled science”, its value is far more complicated.
At its best, peer review is a slow and careful evaluation of new research by appropriate experts. It involves multiple rounds of revision that removes errors, strengthens analyses, and noticeably improves manuscripts.
At its worst, it is merely window dressing that gives the unwarranted appearance of authority, a cursory process which confers no real value, enforces orthodoxy, and overlooks both obvious analytical problems and outright fraud entirely.
Regardless of how any individual paper is reviewed – and the experience is usually somewhere between the above extremes – the sad truth is peer review in its entirety is struggling, and retractions like this drag its flaws into an incredibly bright spotlight.