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Open science: a necessity or road block?

Authors: This article was written on behalf of Apollo Society, by Saraswati Bhushan (1st year Regenerative Medicine and Technology student UU), Nadine Boers (4th year SUMMA student UMCU/UU), Dasha Fedorushkova (2nd year of the Master’s ‘Neuroscience and Cognition’), Netanja Harlianto (3rd year CRU+ medical student UMCU/UU), Leon de Hoog (physician assistant Neurology St. Antonius, Anna Vera Verschuur (6th year CRU+ medical student UMCU) and Stamatina Violaki (1st year "Toxicology and Environmental Health" Master's UU).

The current COVID-19 crisis has pushed Open Science into a new limelight. Due to rapid developments in understanding, there are daily updates – sometimes even hourly updates – on how to treat the coronavirus as well as its impacts on our society. One specific example is hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which appears to play a controversial role at a political, scientific, and general public level. This drug has allowed us to directly see how Open Science involves multiple parties besides merely scientists. 

Politics

Firstly, the influence of open science on the political landscape has been indisputable. The current crisis has shown that governmental policies have directly been influenced by the appearance of non-peer reviewed articles on pre-publishing servers. These include controversy over the use of the face masks in several countries and the debate on the closure of primary schools. The available data during the COVID-19 crisis has led to an accumulation of knowledge, which often did not meet the usual scientific standards due to the time constraints. This led to misinformation in governmental circles and thus fallacy in policy making. The American president Donald Trump could serve as a case report. Soon after the French HCQ trial, Trump lauded the anti-malaria drug and proudly proclaimed to take it as a prophylaxis, despite many experts’ warnings about its side-effects and the expected run on the medicine for the patients who depend on it. Another case example is presented by Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, who kept proclaiming HCQ as the wonder drug to cure COVID-19. He persisted, in spite of large-scale trials disproving this notion and a subsequent lack of financial resources for necessary testing and contact-tracing. Although this is the consequence of lack of scientific knowledge from governmental officials, there are still motions set in action by them, such as mandating the use of face masks in public transportation. These actions in part may be influenced by the appearance of these trials in the public space without proper peer-review.

Science

Due to a lack of proper peer-review by expert editors, and the increased speed at which some are ‘forced’ to publish, we see a decline in scientific context. Apart from the overlap between certain studies regarding data, experiments or even results, studies with suboptimal or even incomplete data are published. For instance, a multinational registry analysis on HCQ [1], originally published in the Lancet, was retracted because of the unreliability of the data sources. Is this haste called ‘open science’ even science at all? As Isaac Asimov has mentioned in one of his interviews, “Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.’’ If that “mechanism’’ is incomplete, science simply consists of statements that the public must believe because scientists say so. With rising concerns about upholding science’s true meaning – knowledge coming from repeatability and validity of certain data – we hope that the openness will lead to a new era of shared knowledge. We have hope for a future in which no scientist engages in manipulation of their data for prestige or having their article published in a high impact journal. With that being said, we as scientists should not forget our responsibility towards the public, and those who will be using that knowledge in order to better the public’s conditions of living.

General public

Thirdly, it is difficult for the public to rely on science if papers are being retracted. The retraction of a paper does not remove the perception of its findings out of the world. The paper’s results could still be regarded as truth, especially if the reader has had limited scientific training. A well-known example is Wakefield et al.’s publication in the Lancet in 1998 on the causal relationship between vaccinations and autism [2]. Despite its retraction in 2010, it is still considered a major argument for anti-vaccine activists. As a consequence of this misinterpretation, the number of measles cases in the Netherlands has increased in the past years despite Dutch pediatricians calling for vaccination and more trust in science. 

This brings us to another detrimental consequence of the retraction of papers. How can scientists be trusted if they retract their papers? Especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, scientific papers are not solely interpreted by the scientifically trained public; journalists are on a hunt for breaking news. Not surprisingly, an anti-COVID restrictions movement in the Netherlands, called ‘Viruswaanzin’ (Viral Madness), has gained attention and argues that the government is guided by contradictory information. Through summary proceedings ‘Viruswaanzin’ wants to enforce a clear substantiation of the coronavirus measures. They argue that measures should not be introduced by the government until it is 100% certain that they work [3]. It is scary how national measures are opposed. On the other hand, the need for clarity in a situation of contradictory knowledge is merely a human instinct.

Conclusion

Especially in a pandemic situation such as COVID-19, we witness the value, but also the unwarranted side-effects of open science. We cannot blame the general, non-scientific public, for misinterpretation of scientific articles which may or may not hold up to the general standards. Therefore, it is our responsibility to make sure that we stay critical, not only towards our own research and publications, but also to those of others. Only then can open science lead to a new era of shared knowledge with all its benefits.

References:

[1] Mehra MR, Ruschitzka F, Patel AN. Retraction-Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis [retraction of: Lancet. 2020 May 22;:]. Lancet. 2020;395(10240):1820. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31324-6

[2] Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 1998; 351 (9103): 637-41.

[3] Volkskrant. In de rechtbank stoort Viruswaanzin zich eerst aan het spatscherm en dan aan de rechter. [Internet]. Available from: https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/in-de-rechtbank-stoort-viruswaanzin-zich-eerst-aan-het-spatscherm-en-dan-aan-de-rechter~bdff8b1e/ [Accessed June 25th, 2020]

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