Scientific Quality of COVID-19 and SARS CoV-2 Publications in the Highest Impact Medical Journals during the Early Phase of the Pandemic: A Case-Control Study

Published on by Joana Berger-Estilita
A debate about the scientific quality of COVID-19 themed research has emerged. We explored whether the quality of evidence of COVID-19 publications is lower when compared to nonCOVID-19 publications in the three highest ranked scientific medical journals. We searched the PubMed Database from March 12 to April 12, 2020 and identified 559 publications in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet which were divided into COVID-19 (cases, n = 204) and nonCOVID-19 (controls, n = 355) associated content. After exclusion of secondary, unauthored, response letters and non-matching article types, 157 COVID-19 publications (including 13 original articles) and 141 nonCOVID-19 publications (including 52 original articles) were included in the comparative analysis. The hierarchical level of evidence was determined for each publication included and compared between cases and controls as the main outcome. A quantitative scoring of quality was carried out for the subgroup of original articles. The numbers of authors and citation rates were also compared between groups. The 141 nonCOVID-19 publications were associated with higher levels of evidence on the level of evidence pyramid, with a strong association measure (Cramer's V: 0.423, P <0.001). The 157 COVID-19 publications were 16-fold more likely to be of lower evidence (95% confidence interval [CI] for odds ratio, 6.2–42; P <0.001). The quantitative quality score (maximum possible score, 28) was significantly different in favor of nonCOVID-19 (mean difference, 11.1; 95% CI, 8.5–13.7; P <0.001). There was a significant difference in the early citation rate of the original articles that favored the COVID-19 original articles (median [interquartile range], 45 [30-244] vs. 2 [1-4] citations; P <0.001). We conclude that the quality of COVID-19 publications in the three highest ranked scientific medical journals is below the quality average of these journals. These findings need to be verified at a later stage of the pandemic.

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