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Fraught uncertainty colored the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that researchers around the world were hunkering down to furiously study every facet of the virus and anticipate its broad effects on society was a comforting thought for many people, including me. In the face of a public emergency, expediting the process of understanding a scientific problem seemed to be a sensible way to expedite the process of devising its scientific solution. And scientists delivered – papers on COVID-19 flooded journals, informing subsequent waves of studies and policies that shaped the course of the pandemic.

But speeding up the scientific process came at a cost: Several reviews of COVID-19 research published in the early stages of the pandemic found that many studies used weak methods, limiting the applicability of their results.

Public health researcher Dennis M. Gorman of Texas A&M University, whose own review found methodological issues in papers published in top public health journals, notes that the issue of poor study design is a long-standing one. Even before the pandemic, the culture of “publish or perish” in academic circles has led researchers and journals to hasten the scientific process at the expense of rigor and integrity.

It may be tempting to see critique of how science is conducted as an attack on science itself, fueling the fire of the anti-science movement that has gained speed in recent years. But, as Gorman writes, “a critical and rational approach to the production of knowledge is, in fact, fundamental to the very practice of science and to the functioning of an open society capable of solving complex problems such as a worldwide pandemic.”

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Vivian Lam

Associate Health and Biomedicine Editor

The pandemic spurred an increase in COVID-19 research, much of it with methodological holes. Andriy Onufriyenko/Moment via Getty Images

Early COVID-19 research is riddled with poor methods and low-quality results − a problem for science the pandemic worsened but didn’t create

Dennis M. Gorman, Texas A&M University

Pressure to ‘publish or perish’ and get results out as quickly as possible has led to weak study designs and shortened peer-review processes.

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