Pandemic Puts Spotlight on How Science Misinformation is Triggered

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Dr. Lisa Parker, Charles Perkins Centre, School of Pharmacy, University of Sydney

Changes to how new scientific knowledge is recorded and shared are urgently needed, and now is the time to invest in research to combat misinformation before the next science crisis, say University of Sydney researchers.

A study published in BMJ Open Science documenting experiences of Australian health researchers and science communicators during the COVID-19 pandemic shows a shared concern regarding the contribution of long-neglected issues in the research and media landscape that led to misinformation. The combination of an urgent need for new data and understanding of the pandemic with intense public interest meant the spread of misinformation became particularly intense.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public have received a crash course in science and information literacy, with growing understanding of what constitutes robust and high-quality research,” said Dr. Lisa Parker, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow with the Charles Perkins Centre in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Sydney. “To prevent or reduce misinformation, key changes are needed from within the research community, academic and media publishing systems, and government funding processes.”

Parker and colleagues interviewed experienced, early- to mid-career researchers and science communicators involved in biomedical research. In the complex flow of health information—from generating science to then communicating research to the general public—the interviewed participants stated there were multiple factors, or “triggers,” that could lead to misinformation. These include the production of fraudulent or biased science research, a “publish or perish” research culture, inadequate training in research misconduct, problems in the academic publishing system, and lack of public access to high-quality research. The loss of specialist science journalists who can explain and critically evaluable scientific studies and the lack of skilled communicators who can translate scientific jargon also played a part.

Key insights included:

Science production can be of poor quality or biased; triggers for “bad science” include:

  • Institutional pressure to publish academic papers.
  • High competition for academic science jobs.
  • Systemic bias from widespread industry funding.
  • Questionable research practices, such as recruiting study participants until results are statistically significant then stopping.

Science communication and access problems include:

  • Publication bias, such as only publishing results favorable to funders or political leaders.
  • Peer review system is inefficient and lacks transparency.
  • Academic journal publication paywalls.
  • Conflicting views on whether pre-prints (papers released prior to formal peer review) are part of the problem.

Edited by Gary Cramer