• Alex Bowers

How 'Following the Science' on COVID-19 may lead you astray

In May 2020 the International Journal of Engineering Research and Technology (IJERT) published a paper which argued that a combination of UV radiation, intelligent textiles (whatever that means?) and a diet of Mediterranean olive oil, fish and provincial herbs should sufficiently defend against Covid-19. One piece of research used by the author to support these claims was an article entitled 'Cyllage City COVID-19 outbreak linked to Zubat consumption', a joke study submitted by Matan Shelomi in March, which linked the origins of the pandemic to citizens of a fictional city eating a Pokémon and listed Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, as a co-author. The IJERT paper has been read just under 1,500 times. How many of those readers came away believing it's wholly unfounded conclusions, and then went on to share this 'Science' on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp? Bad science can spread fast. Even faster when it fits a popular political narrative.

Science and the Pandemic

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the phrase 'following the science' has been used in equal measure by government ministers, opposition leaders and 'free thinkers' on Twitter. Whether you are arguing for public health policies such as lockdowns, mask wearing, vaccinations or, in fact, the exact opposite, you will be able to find numerous studies and reports which seem to support your argument.

How can this be possible? We are taught in school that Science is a realm of facts, numbers and statistics: proven truths. So how can 'Science' now seemingly be constantly giving us multiple conflicting answers to vitally important questions: Is Covid-19 any more dangerous than a normal flu? Is Hydroxychloroquine an effective treatment? Will wearing a mask slow infection rates? In the last year, papers have been made public which answer all these questions, and many more like them, with 'yes' and 'no'.

With governments and individuals both grappling for answers, it is crucial that we understand how this confusion has arisen, and how we can decipher which 'Science' to trust. I believe the key to this is understanding Pre-Print and Open Access Servers.

What is a Pre-Print Server?

Since the first academic journal was established in 1665, there has been a standard route for research to enter the public domain. A scientist submits their work to the relevant journal, of which there are currently around 30,000, where it undergoes an initial appraisal to answer some basic questions: Is the work worth publishing? Are it's conclusions reasonable? Are there any glaring holes in its methodology?

If the research has met these surface level requirements, it is then distributed among experts in the field to give it a thorough look over. This part of the process is known as 'peer review' and is essential for producing rigorous and responsible scientific research. The prospective paper is then passed backwards and forwards between the researcher, the journal and the peer reviewers for around a year and a half as criticisms are raised and addressed. Eventually, a consensus is reached and the paper is published by the journal, and new reliable scientific knowledge is born.

However, in 1991 this changed with the creation of arXiv, the world's first Pre-Print server. It was, as the name suggests, an archive of un-published scientific research that was entirely online and free to access. This was not simply to democratise science, which it undoubtedly did, but also to aid in research. If a research team wanted to ensure that a journal does not write their paper off at the first hurdle they could publish their work on arXiv to receive instant feedback from the wider academic community.

Since "every scientist knows that their career depends on being published", this new way to get a form of peer review at the embryonic stage is highly valuable. Since arXiv, countless other servers of this nature have been created, and have contributed to 'good' science, but crucially the work archived on them has not yet been certified as a high enough standard for publication.

Where it falls apart: Predatory Journals and Eager Beavers

Here I think it is useful to split the problems that arise from Pre-Print servers into two categories: issues with the servers themselves and issues with how their archives are interpreted.

The first of these can be perfectly outlined by the example in the introduction. The paper released by IJERT, which proposed fish as a cure for Coronavirus, was not a scientific piece of work, it's claims would not get passed a class of GCSE Biology students, let alone a proper peer review process. So how did it even make it on the server?

The answer is that IJERT is a predatory journal. A journal which undertakes no review process, all that it requires to make your work public is a cash payment, ranging from one hundred to over a thousand dollars. This allows any crank, quack or misled person to have any belief they want enter the public domain as 'science'. All the predatory journal has to do is maintain the appearance of a proper scientific journal to keep cash flowing in. This disguise also has the secondary harm of presenting some absurd, and sometimes dangerous, ideas as coming from a reliable and authoritative source. Here you can find a list of these predatory journals.

The second issue does not concern these predatory open access servers, but the Pre-Print servers, such as arXiv, which are used by proper researchers. These servers are generally small operations and cannot undertake quality control on the surge of COVID research they are hosting. The medical server medRxiv saw a 400% increase in submissions in 2020.

The problem here is that with a topic such as Coronavirus everyone wants to know the latest research, which means that 'Eager Beavers' in the media and the general public have been closely watching Pre-Print servers. Many of these onlookers will be unaware of the untested quality of this research and read it uncritically, taking these papers at face value as scientific evidence.

We know this has happened. Early on in 2020 a paper was put up on a Pre-Print server which suggested intaking Ibuprofen (Advil) would increase the chance of fatality in COVID-19 patients. Within days even the World Health Organisation recommended avoiding Ibuprofen in cases involving coronavirus. It was later proved conclusively by published research that this claim was unfounded. The Ibuprofen case is only the tip of the iceberg, other examples can be found with claims that smoking prevents coronavirus and blood pressure medication can increase fatality rate, which clearly have harmful implications. Who knows how many people came off their blood pressure medication in response to bad 'science'?

So I shouldn't do my own research?

The phrase 'I did my own research' has become a cliché when it comes to conspiracy theories and rabbit holes, and coronavirus conspiracies are no exception. Writing in Forbes in July last year, Ph.D. astrophysicist Ethan Siegel implores readers not to do your own research, and instead believe scientific consensus, suggesting that most people are simply not qualified enough to understand scientific issues. So is the answer to the Pre-Print problem to stop us ordinary people from accessing them? Perhaps require an institutional login, or hide it all behind a paywall?

To me, this kind of argument is laced with academic elitism, and completely misses what I believe to be the central issue of the whole Pre-Print and misinformation relationship. The problem is not that too much information is freely available, but not enough. It is easy for an academic, scientist or doctor to say 'don't research, just look at the consensus' when they have full access to the archives of published and peer-reviewed journals paid for by their University or Institution.

Without institutional access published articles are prohibitively expensive. For example, a single paper titled 'Evaluation of mechanisms of action of re-purposed drugs for treatment of COVID-19' from the journal of Cellular Immunology costs $41.95 to access. When anyone outside academia looks for scientific knowledge, who can blame them for not paying up to £50 for one article from a published journal, and instead combing through the plethora of free to access Pre-Print servers and Predatory Journals?

The problem is therefore that the 'good' science is walled off from the public by the incredibly profitable academic publishing industry, with the largest publishing body, Elsevier, yielding a profit of 900 million pounds in 2018. This leaves at best, unfinished, and at worst, dangerous, science as the main body of evidence for most people, who very understandably want answers for what is going on around them.

Finally, inject a dose of political agenda

The way in which we approach claims and evidence is hugely affected by our own deeply held convictions about what is 'common-sense'; beliefs which are often emotionally charged. In other words, our politics changes the way we judge information.

This is known as confirmation-bias and is a well documented psychological phenomena. As a result, if we see an article or chart shared on social-media that seems to confirm what we already believe, then we're less likely to challenge it and are more likely to pass it on. It is easy to see how one piece of misinformation can spread rapidly between politically aligned Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups.

On top of this there is also the possibility that "we are often being led by the hand down a specific path, even if we don’t realize it", by the messaging of media figures, politicians or industries who are harnessing misinformation to push their own agendas.

In a simple summary: there is the obvious message of 'don't trust everything you read', which I won't pretend is in any way unique. However, I think the crucial message I would want you to take from this is to throw away any assumptions that someone is 'stupid' for believing something you 'know' to be false. Many people have been misled by unknowing scientists on Pre-Print servers. Others have been intentionally misled by people with extreme beliefs platformed by predatory journals. Crucially, victims of misinformation cannot be blamed for trying to best protect themselves in the context of COVID-19 by doing their own research.

Maybe next time you go to put a comment on someone's social media post you disagree with, sit back and think, maybe they're just 'following the science'.

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