The peer review process is essential for maintaining scientific integrity but can take up to six months or longer to complete. Preprints – manuscripts that have not undergone peer review – have gained support in recent times as they can expedite research findings into the public domain. During the current coronavirus pandemic in particular, the use of preprints has increased dramatically in response to the need for rapid data sharing in the global effort to contain the spread of the virus. A recent editorial in The BMJ by Dr van Schalkwyk and colleagues discusses the implications of this increase and whether the potential benefits of preprints outweigh the risks.
The main concerns regarding the use of preprints relate to matters of credibility and misinformation, whether intentional or otherwise. The authors highlight a recent example where two preprints proposing a protective link between smoking and COVID-19 were picked up by the media and widely disseminated. Questions were later raised about the study methods and potential author links to the tobacco industry. The preprints were published on Qeios, which does not warn readers that content is not peer reviewed (unlike other platforms, such as medRxiv) and, until recently, did not require authors to declare potential conflicts of interest.
The authors suggest that preprint platforms require standards in order to maintain scientific integrity and minimise the potential misuse of the preprint publishing process by those with vested interests.
At a minimum, they suggest that declarations of competing interests and funding sources should be made mandatory and transparent policies should be implemented for dealing with industry-funded research. The authors conclude that the use of evolving methods of publication, such as preprints, requires caution. Further scrutiny is needed to ensure that timely access to evidence is not undermined by potential harms resulting from the release and dissemination of unreliable data.
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