Evidence: What’s good, What’s good enough, What’s dangerous? Lessons for now and later.

COVID-19 has created a complex environment for health research. In an evidence vacuum with a clinical imperative to act, we have few choices. They include relying on analogues (such as SARS or MERS), trying treatments based on theoretical biological plausibility, relying on anecdotal evidence and case reports, and rushing evidence from small studies that may have significant limitations into print. There is a need for answers that are definitive but also rapid: a condition that science as we currently practice it can’t satisfy. Additionally, peer review relies on content-area experts, which are hard to find for a rapidly evolving area when potential experts are also stretched thin with clinical and research roles. The result is that evidence may look different from what we are accustomed to.

Some healthcare practitioners and scientists have reacted with alarm when low-quality studies have been published by normally meticulous journals. Are we abandoning the RCT, they ask? Is appropriate statistical analysis no longer required? Does the name of a prestige journal no longer guarantee rigor? Is low-quality evidence worse than no evidence at all? Is it wise to publish clinical observations in a newspaper rather than a medical journal? Who is responsible when a public (or public official) not equipped to recognize the limits of early evidence spreads misinformation? Are resulting adverse events or medication shortages partially the responsibility of the publication? The researcher?

These are debates worth having, and there will be compelling arguments on both sides. No matter your stance, though, there will be an impact on the future of science.

Lessons include:

  • Critically reading studies and understanding their strengths and limitations remains a valuable skill. Just because something is in print doesn’t mean it should be in practice. Scientific education in all disciplines needs to continue to focus on this skill.
  • Perhaps the standard glacial pace of evidence dissemination can, in fact, improve. Faced with undeniable urgency, the mechanisms of publication are adapting. Turnaround time measured in days or weeks rather than months or years is possible.
  • Lots of content related to COVID-19 from academic and lay publications alike is open-access— because it is seen as for the public good. Perhaps that perception can broaden, and alternative payment structures will make science more accessible.
  • The translation of basic science to clinical application (bench to bedside) can move rapidly when needed. As my fellow blogger Sasha Prisco has noted, there are currently administrative barriers that hinder this work, and their long-term necessity may need to be reevaluated.
  • Real-time information sharing and collaboration occurs through multiple channels beyond academic journals, including social media sites.

Have you considered the potential impact of this pandemic on the future of scientific publication and knowledge dissemination? Has it changed your ideas about publishing, research, evidence-based practice?

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