Chasing a Bad Preprint

Our ability to protect the public sphere is negligible thanks to the techno-utopians and free information crowd

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a preprint first posted on Preprints with The Lancet — a feed of SSRN preprints — which has been used to promote the conspiracy theory that “74% of Covid-19 autopsy deaths were caused by the vaccine.” The preprint was removed 48 hours after posting, but like other incidents, the damage was done as social media villains took the misinformation and ran with it.

The fact that six of the nine authors of the review are affiliated with The Wellness Company, a purveyor of supplements and “Freedom from Pharma” ideas, didn’t seem to register with the screeners at Preprints with The Lancet.

Nor did the sad legacy of anti-vax conspiracy associated with the Lancet, where Wakefield’s paper hinting that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative was associated with autism, was published, and then splashed across the then-nascent search engine called Google by celebrity attention-seekers to plant anti-vaccination conspiracies that have flourished ever since.

The current injection of anti-vax conspiracy seems more intentional — not only are anti-vax conspiracies well-known phenomena, but it was a dubious decision to mount and maintain a preprint server with loose oversight at a time when accurate public health information has been paramount.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. And the Lancet has been part of this problem before.

One of many big shortcomings with preprint servers is that they don’t do basic COI checks and require disclosures, so are routinely played by corporate shills. Some even get a faux-journal shell like eLife’s wrapped around them, conveying unearned validation.

Now, after being removed, the preprint remains on Zenodo, where it was posted just one day after the initial posting. Over the ensuing four weeks, this version has amassed 117,000+ views and nearly 100,000 PDF downloads.

Of course, because preprints are embraced by those with a free-information ideology, the full-text of the SSRN/Preprints with The Lancet version remains available on Europe PMC, despite it being “removed” by the Lancet’s preprints team.

Despite attempts to debunk it, the bad information continues to circulate, in two damaging, confusing, and dispiriting ways:

  1. The false claims continue to be circulated
  2. A conspiracy about the “paper” being removed by the Lancet now exists, as well

The branding of Preprints with The Lancet has always struck me as risky, misguided, and unnecessary. Why tie up one of the best brands in medicine with unvetted papers and confusing versions? What degree of ideological capture has occurred to lead any steward of a brand like that to casually erode its value with even the possibility of being caught out like this?

But the more fundamental problem continues to be preprints in biomedicine, and the same questions apply: Why take the risk? What is to be gained? What degree of ideological capture has occurred to lead us to casually erode our value with even the possibility of being caught out like this?

If anyone can come up with definite benefits to biomedical preprints — not speculation, not hand-waving, not empty posturing — I’m all ears. The harms are concrete, obvious, and well-documented, and they continue.

Why can’t we have the good of great information technologies without the harms and risks of bad information management approaches?