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Studies: top medical journals biased towards Zero Covid

Medical journals failed to uphold viewpoint diversity during Covid. Credit: Getty

Original Article

Two studies published this week provide insight into a problem that continues to frustrate many scientists, especially those critical of government Covid-19 policies: the ideological biases of top medical journals.

The studies were coordinated by Prof. John Ioannidis of Stanford University, who has long studied publication biases in medical research, including the infamous 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings are False”.

The first compared publications in the BMJ from scientists who advocated for Zero Covid, such as members of Independent Sage, to other scientific groups including members of the official Government Sage group and signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). It found that UK Zero Covid advocates published 272 related papers, compared to just 21 for Sage members and only six for signatories of the GBD. This large divergence was mainly due to the overwhelming number of opinion and analysis papers, which are typically held to different standards of editorial oversight.

The second paper (which I co-authored) analysed the membership of over 350 scientists involved in a major “consensus” paper in Nature. The paper, published in 2022, was covered by more than 150 news outlets and continues to be widely downloaded and cited. Yet 35% of the core study team (14/40) and almost 20% of the total panel members (63/367) were major figures in the Zero Covid movement, including about one-third of the total members of Independent Sage and the World Health Network. The Nature paper “advances a global vision for informed decisionmaking” on how to end the pandemic through the use of a vaccine-plus approach: that is, vaccines and the full range of other policies and interventions we witnessed over the Covid years.

These two papers help support what many scientists experienced during the pandemic: the gatekeeping of top journals, favouring official government positions and rejecting papers that were critical of them. Take, as another example, the influence of Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the world’s most celebrated medical journal The Lancet, who was a supporter of — or at least sympathetic to — Zero Covid. In October 2020, the journal published an opinion piece with “Scientific Consensus” in its title. The “John Snow Memorandum” criticised the GBD, promoted maximalist interventions, and in particular cited the examples of Vietnam and New Zealand, which both pursued Zero Covid.

Scientists who supported the GBD knew and still know: it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than get a piece into The Lancet. But what do these implicit biases do to public policy and the nature of science? Among other things, during the pandemic they created a false reality and a false truth that we could eliminate the virus. This hubris was responsible for some of the worst public policy decisions of our lifetime, causing wide-ranging real-world harm.

Yet these top journals continue to promote a skewed understanding of the pandemic response. Just look at the three recent series in the BMJ that promoted “accountability” and “lessons” of the pandemic response in the UKUSA, and Canada. Of 25 articles, not one focuses on the harms of government interventions and the overwhelming perception is that politicians should have done more to protect people from the virus.

Herein lays the problem: our top medical journals, like our mainstream media, have become increasingly ideological on everything from Covid to gender medicine to climate change. Perhaps this is not surprising: medical journals tend to promote more government-directed public health. But they have also become increasingly influenced by the culture wars, also seen in their promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). What has come to suffer, however, is foundational to the free exchange of ideas: a diversity of viewpoint.

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