The Importance of Research Integrity in a Global Pandemic

David Ison
PhD Professor 
Graduate School
Northcentral University

While much of the attention of ICAI and its many members focuses on academic integrity from the student side, we have to remember – and advocate for – integrity in the work of faculty and researchers as well. What better example can we lay forth for students than for teachers and professors to “practice what they preach.” Unfortunately, retractions of research articles occur regularly, sometimes for honest errors and, for others, due to egregious breaches of ethical standards. No place can misleading or deceptive research cause more real harm to the general public than medical research. This genre of research has the potential to impact our lives and those of our loved ones, leading doctors who care for us to prescribe specific pharmaceuticals or perform other types of treatment based upon the findings of writers.

In times of crisis, such as within the global COVID-19 pandemic within which we all have been living for the past several months, it is not surprising – and we all are glad to see – that medical researchers have been frantically trying to find treatments, vaccines, or cures for the deadly virus. Yet these are the times in which we must guard against rushing to conclusions based on pseudoscience, poorly executed studies, or worse, ethically questionable research and conclusions thereof. Sadly, there have been examples of spurious or illusory research on COVID-19 treatments.

The danger of misinformation in medical research cannot be underestimated. One significant example of ethical misconduct at the hands of a researcher was the claim of a link between vaccines and autism. In Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 article in the Lancet, he claimed that, in short, vaccines caused autism. This created a wave of outcries concerning vaccine safety and subsequently led many parents to forgo vaccination of their children. It was determined that Wakefield’s study was paid for and crafted by a group of lawyers in the process of suing vaccine companies in Britain. Moreover, the findings were dubious, contrary to previous research, and based upon inadequate research design and ethical standards. It took 12 years, but the Lancet eventually retracted the article and the science community has dismissed the claim linking vaccines to autism. The impact of Wakefield’s false claims cannot be entirely measured but has potentially played part in the trend of more unvaccinated children and even recent outbreaks of measles in the U.S.

Recently, we have seen medical researchers following similar paths of presenting questionable findings with real and significant potential public impact related to COVID-19 treatments. Headlines quickly highlighted the results of a study titled “Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of Covid-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial” appearing in the March issue of the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, which touted the use of an antimalarial drug to lessen COVID-19 symptoms. Further recommendations for this treatment were advocated for by President Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, many people scrambled to get their hands on the drug and an unknown number of patients likely received the drug as part of their treatment. An example of the deadly results that may ensue from specious research findings is that an Arizona couple poisoned themselves while taking a form of chloroquine, under the assumption that it would protect them from COVID-19. The IJAA article was eventually retracted due to a slew of confounding variables, possible ethical issues, missing patient data, and a peer review process that was expedited more than necessary. Around the same time, the FDA recommended extreme caution in the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients. Many infectious disease doctors have concluded that the drug has a low likelihood of making a significant positive impact on the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

While it is understandable that in time such as these, rapid and aggressive research tactics must be employed to try to identify treatments or possible cures to COVID-19. In fact, the rapid pace at which scientists have been ramping up their understanding of the virus is astounding and laudable. The aforementioned, however, serves as a warning and reminder of the importance of maintaining ethical and honest research practices even in light of this adrenaline fueled COVID-19 sprint to the finish line. Research can have substantial influence on society which cannot be underestimated. Thus, there is no place for fallacious research in academic or other media. We as academics must guard against these transgressions, as researchers, peer-reviewers, and consumers of such media, and take action if we see that something is amiss.