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Over 300 COVID-related medical papers retracted due to scientific errors, compromised ethical standards

Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

More than 300 COVID-related medical articles have been retracted or withdrawn from various research journals since 2020, often due to scientific errors and compromised ethical standards, according to watchdog group Retraction Watch.

The watchdog group has been keeping a running list of COVID-related medical papers that research journals have retracted. As of Wednesday, the database contains 330 withdrawn articles ranging from “Acute kidney injury and collapsing glomerulopathy associated with COVID-19 and APOL1 high risk genotype” to “Can Your AI Differentiate Cats from COVID-19?”

Many retracted papers were published in smaller research journals, though some were featured in highly influential publications such as the Lancet and Science.

Gunnveig Grødeland, a senior researcher at the Institute of Immunology at the University of Oslo, told Khrono, a Norwegian newspaper, that some research journals compromised ethical standards to approve more COVID-related publications or take ethics shortcuts.

Grødeland, who reviewed Retraction Watch’s list, noted that the papers had been withdrawn for a number of different reasons. Some of the retracted articles were preprints, which are often updated or published elsewhere, Grødeland explained.

Preprints are rarely retracted by the journal for containing flawed data because “the server made no claim to have peer-reviewed and certified the scientific content in the first place,” Retraction Watch stated. However, preprints will be removed “in instances of fraud, ethics violations, dangerous material, or legal issues.”

Grødeland said that many of the retracted papers were found to be in violation of ethical guidelines.

“It will, of course, be withdrawn when it is found that ethical guidelines have been breached,” she stated.

One of those retracted medical papers included “Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19,” published in the Lancet and withdrawn after two weeks. The paper claimed that hydroxychloroquine increased the risk of death from COVID.

A paper published in Science that investigated the spread of the Omicron variant in South Africa was retracted after social media users noted that some of the samples used in the study could have been false positives.

An investigation conducted by Australia’s Monash University found that 270,000 COVID-related papers had been published since 2020, the institute reported in October 2022. Furthermore, the study uncovered that even papers that had been retracted were still being cited.

For example, after investigating 212 withdrawn articles, the university discovered that the retracted papers were cited 2,697 times. Of those citations, 90% failed to mention that the paper had been withdrawn and 80% were published after the retraction.

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