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ISC speaks out against Covid-related attacks on researchers

Scientists “must be free to express legitimate concerns” about research validity, says international group

The International Science Council has decried hostility towards whistleblowers in the scientific community, warning that there has been a spate of attacks on those who have called out poor-quality Covid-19 research.

With concerns about the quality of research produced under pandemic pressure an increasingly hot topic in the scientific community, the group put out a strongly worded statement on 2 June. The ISC brings together more than 140 national and regional scientific organisations, including the Royal Society in the UK, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Korea.

“The ISC is gravely concerned by the widespread attacks on researchers who continue to dedicate their lives to advancing science as a global public good,” wrote Daya Reddy, chair of the ISC Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science, and his colleagues.

They added that as well as working on Covid-19, researchers had a responsibility to probe the research of others. Reddy and colleagues said they were concerned about “the volume of research produced during the pandemic that fails to meet scientific standards and by the attacks on scientists who challenge and critique such research”.

‘Growing threats’

The warning came as some researchers reported harassment and intimidation in response to their criticism of work that they believed failed to meet high scientific standards.

The ISC specifically listed the example of microbiologist and research integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik, which it said was “an alarming example of growing threats to scientific freedom”.

Bik, who investigates issues including image duplication, data manipulation and ethics breaches in academic papers, has faced and continues to deal with legal action from some researchers whose work she has questioned.

In an open letter in OSF Preprints on 17 May, numerous scientists came to Bik’s defence, saying that “Bik’s work is instrumental to ethical, sound and reproducible research, but it also introduces her to personal risk as a whistleblower”.

The ISC echoed this sentiment, saying that “scientists must be free to express legitimate concerns about the validity of published research” and that any attempts to limit scientific critique “represent a serious infringement of scientific freedom”.

The organisation urged international governments to uphold scientists’ right to pursue their work.