Is science being done the right way during this pandemic?
With the rush to find solutions to combat the spread of COVID-19, there has been a surge in scientific findings being released to the public without going through the normal peer-review process, a hallmark of academic research writing to ensure the information is accurate.
Although scientists are short-circuiting a vital process, they are generally doing so with the best intentions. By releasing “pre-prints,” data is available more quickly to policymakers and other scientists, thereby providing real-time scientific information and allowing for evolving policies. Indeed, this has been encouraged by some funding organizations.
But this speedy approach is troubling. The peer-review process certainly slows down science, but it serves as the ultimate check and balance that ensures that scientists are engaging in the best practices, including remaining blind to experimental conditions, fully disclosing conflicts of interests, ensuring sample sizes are adequately large, and verifying that statistical analyses are conducted properly.
We both have vast experience with peer review. We know it often highlights key shortcomings in research including unnoticed errors, alternative explanations of findings, or important data analyses that are required to reach a particular conclusion.
A few significant missteps, and the public could start to lose faith in scientists. Right now, scientists are in the most trusted profession in the world. This trust is based on the belief that scientists take pains to do careful work, which peer-review strives to ensure. Of course, peer review is not perfect, and we are certainly not arguing that the majority of scientists are choosing to skip the process during this pandemic. Rather, we don’t know how many scientists are taking this speedy approach, and that should give all of us pause.
Certainly, the threat of the virus is one important reason to drive the hurried approach. As psychologists who study human motivation and decision-making, we would like to suggest another factor. We are living in a time of deep uncertainty, which heightens the sense of threat.
Studies in psychology have shown that when people feel threatened, they often show a strong preference for firm beliefs and decisive action. Moreover, research has shown that when people attempt to manage negative emotions such as fear, they end up engaging in risky decisions. In fact, people sometimes engage in risky and impulsive behaviors to alleviate distress.
Scientists are not alone in their desire to provide quick answers during this pandemic. In less than four weeks, the government has passed three stimulus bills costing more than $2 trillion, with probably more stimulus packages to come. Moreover, people have demonstrated a marvelous capacity for rapid innovation during this pandemic, such as creating 3D-printed masks for health care professionals.
But scientists do their best work slowly. By skipping the peer-review process and quickly releasing findings to the public, scientists risk leading lawmakers and the public to invest in solutions that may be supported by flawed studies, which can lead to wasted time and effort and can put lives at risk.
There are plenty of reasons to have continued faith in science more broadly. Health experts at the forefront of combating this pandemic, such Anthony Fauci, regularly offer recommendations that are based on sound evidence – data that has accumulated over decades of research.
Rather than pushing for speedy, unproven solutions, scientists should set up standing review panels for studies being done in response to the pandemic so that research findings can be reviewed quickly but accurately. They should coordinate efforts among researchers to try to provide multiple independent attempts to obtain the same finding. And when in doubt, rely on older evidence that has not just been peer-reviewed but has stood the test of time. Finally, on those occasions when a new finding is discussed in public forums before being vetted, scientists should treat the data with caution and skepticism.
Experts predict pandemic outbreaks are likely to become more common. If that is true, we hope the rush to release research findings before they go through peer review does not become the standard response from the scientific community.
Marlone Henderson is an associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of psychology, human dimensions of organizations, and marketing, and he is the executive director of the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.