Publicity about progress on COVID-19 research has highlighted how a social media mindset is seeping into science with potentially disastrous consequences.
Researchers at academic institutions and biotech companies have rushed to share findings on COVID-19, even though they know (or ought to know) that the available data aren’t yet sufficient to support their theories or products. These symptoms reflect an insidious problem. Researchers and companies have fallen prey to a celebrity culture whereby the quest for five minutes of fame is more alluring than the painstaking restraint and rigor that the scientific method demands.
America’s COVID-19-induced transition to a virtual existence has understandably magnified the prominence of social media in many spheres of American life. But science is (or should be) as opposite from social media as one can get. Social media is about instant gratification and the seemingly endless desire of social influencers to gain and commodify celebrity status. Attention seeking is more than its own reward as clicks equate to legitimacy and dollars, and truth is an after-thought compared to the allure of the spotlight.
In contrast, science progresses incrementally and is a long, grueling process focused on accuracy and reproducibility. While a handful of scientists get public recognition for their work, discoveries that culminate in paradigm shifting principles are measured in years, if not decades, and rely on the effort of countless collaborators and young scientists-in-training. Scientific evidence emerges through a systematic process of deliberations and trials as the overwhelming majority of promising ideas and data fail. Hypotheses are debated and tested and often abandoned as dead ends that never see the public eye. Empirical findings are subjected to multiple rounds of broad critiques and validation by other scientific teams who are also working in parallel to fill missing pieces of scientific puzzles.
COVID-19 has created an understandable need for speed to mitigate the effects of the virus and to work towards a vaccine. But biotech companies and researchers should not mimic the world of social media by subordinating the scientific process to rushed results. Sadly, lofty promises by biotech firms rather than substantive data appear to have paid off. In May, when one biotech company shared early findings about its COVID-19 vaccine, its stocks surged and its executives cashed out millions of dollars in stockholdings. Similarly, in early July, another biotech firm leveraged announcements of limited results on the safety and efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccine to win a $1.6 billion contract to produce their unproven product. Neither firms to date, despite their decades of existence, have brought successful products to market. Yet, their attention-seeking strategy has boosted stock prices, gained acclaim, and attracted part of the $10 billion in government funds for COVID-19 vaccine research. Publicizing initial observations has come at a price of fueling false hopes about vaccines whose viability may flounder at any one of the many stages of development, testing and approval.
In the first-to-publish race on COVID-19, researchers and publishers have also embraced a social media mentality and pushed scientific standards aside. The race to understand the underpinnings of COVID-19 and to win competitive applications for COVID-19 research funding have led to an explosion of COVID-19 publications, sometimes as pre-prints without peer‑review. The premature publication of early findings with little to no peer oversight has fueled an unfortunate politicization of the results. Opportunistic politicians and pundits have selectively publicized preliminary findings that fit their political agendas, rather than focusing on the accuracy of the analyses and their value to the public.
The recent retraction of high-profile articles on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine highlights a related problem. Temptations to win the first-to-publish race led a group of researchers to publish findings of increased mortality risks from hydroxychloroquine based on data provided by a for-profit company. But the researchers failed to conduct rigorous validation of the data’s origin and quality, which turned out to be suspect at best. Top scientific and medical journals similarly rushed to be the first to highlight these papers’ dire warnings about hydroxychloroquine and subjected the papers to an accelerated peer review process, which overlooked several problems with the data. While the papers were ultimately retracted, their impact has had major lasting consequences. Massive public confusion arose about whether or not to continue certain commonly used, mortality-reducing cardiac medications. Worse still, grant funding and 131 registered COVID-19 trials were stopped.
Doctors do sometimes have to make decisions based on limited findings, but premature publication of suspect data showcases how treating science like social media is dangerous. When speed, splash and tweets are the measurement of success, science loses its credibility, integrity and validity. In a pandemic, there is a need to strike a balance between scientific rigor and timely solutions. However, money making through sharing of information about vaccines that may or may not pan out is opportunistic and profiteering. Similarly, seizing the spotlight through scholarship that falls far short of scientific standards has the potential to make a bad situation far worse.
Science is not a celebrity culture that glorifies the individual, but rather reflects the collaborative efforts of a community of researchers at both universities and in industry. One cannot blame any scientists for the desire to claim a moment of recognition. But instant gratification, quick-fixes, and fame are at odds with the patience and perseverance that is at the heart of science. As the COVID response has showcased, when science morphs into a social media driven culture, more mistakes are likely to happen and those errors may have deadly consequences.
Kim-Lien Nguyen, MD, is a National Institutes of Health-funded researcher, a practicing cardiologist, and an assistant professor of medicine at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. The views expressed are those of the author’s.