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How half-baked ‘preprint’ studies on COVID-19 have weaponised internet

New York – Amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a spurt in corona-related studies on “preprint” portals that are neither peer-reviewed nor carry traditional academic quality control — thus weaponising the coronavirus research on the internet.

The publishing phenomenon has flooded the internet and social media, creating utter confusion about what is right or wrong on the deadly coronavirus that has affected nearly 4.7 million people worldwide, argue Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe, who teach journalism at Northeastern University in the US.

Preprints have been around for years, but their use has exploded in our current crisis. “More than 10,000 academic works have been published about COVID-19 since January alone, 3,500 of them preprints. By comparison, only 29 studies were published before the 2003 SARS pandemic ended,” the duo wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

For example, a group of Stanford University researchers released a study, saying that COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara County, California, might well be 85 times higher than official estimates.

But the fatality rate for coronavirus might be as low as 0.12 per cent, which would make Covid-19 only as deadly as the seasonal flu, said the researchers.

Within no time, the paper was “leveraged by conservative commentators and activists on social media, forged into ammunition to support the protests against lockdowns and other social mitigation efforts meant to contain the coronavirus and minimize deaths”.

As soon as the Stanford study went online, it began drawing intense criticism from other experts. “Preprints are meant to help scientists find and discuss new findings in real time, which is especially important during a pandemic,” wrote Bajak and Howe. They generally carry a warning label: “This research has yet to be peer reviewed.” To a scientist, this means it”s provisional knowledge — maybe true, maybe not.

“But in the right-wing news media, all that is just fine print, and anything carrying the mark of a respected institution counts as knowledge, particularly when it reinforces the day”s talking points,” they argued.

Numerous studies on Covid-19, its health impact on men, drug combos that can work wonders or discovery of key molecules or enzymes that can kill coronavirus, have appeared on open-access preprint repositories like medRxiv and ArXiv in the past four months, but only a few have made their ways into respected journals.

“What this cascade of sharing behaviour reveals, based on our analysis of nearly 900 COVID-19 preprints, is a tale of two internets: one largely ideological, in which science is leveraged as propaganda, and one that consists of the kind of discussion and debate vital for academia — and democracy,” wrote the duo.

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