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Editorial: Caution over pre-prints

SOME have been sharing news articles of virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan claiming that the coronavirus causing Covid-19 was created in a lab.

The paper, "Unusual Features of the Sars-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route," is authored by Yan and three colleagues affiliated with the Rule of Law Society.

Based on the information gathered from the Rule of Law Society's website, the society is not known for scientific papers. It serves as a platform for those who want to report anomalies happening in China.

Her study was widely reported by foreign news media. However, there is a problem with citing the research paper -- it is still a pre-print.

Andrew Mills, co-founder of Jumpline and a science journalist, during a science journalism workshop organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), said a pre-print is a draft research.

Journalist's Resource (journalistsresource.org) of the Shorenstein Center of the Harvard Kennedy School states "Preprints are research papers that have not been published in an academic journal."

"They also have not undergone peer review, meaning that independent experts have not yet analyzed and critiqued the paper," it said.

"This preprint report cannot be given any credibility in its current form," Dr. Andrew Preston, Reader in Microbial Pathogenesis, University of Bath, was quoted saying on the Science Media Centre (sciencemediacentre.org).

He added that Yan's report "is not based on an objective interpretation of the Sars-CoV-2 genome. The interpretations made are not supported by data, are substantiated and the interpretations are largely stated but not explained."

A peer review is important because it "is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competencies as the producers of the work."

"It functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are used to maintain quality standards, improve performance, and provide credibility," Mills said.

Pre-print findings are also preliminary findings and should not be characterized as established facts.

With that being said, while we cannot discount the claims of Yan, we also cannot say yet if her study is an "established fact". As consumers of information, we have to take the information presented by Yan with some skepticism. Before we make conclusions out of it, we have to wait until it is reviewed or critiqued by other scientists or researchers. Remember a pre--print is still a draft.

How do you know that the study cited is pre-print or not? It is the responsibility of the journalist to inform the readers of his or her story that the research is in pre-print. Sadly, some of the news reports on the news revolving Yan fail to inform the readers that her study is still a pre-print and presented it as a fact.

So what do you do as a reader if you encounter a news article which cites a study? You have to do your research. Google is a powerful tool that will help you gather relevant information. Learn also some Google search hacks to narrow your search.

Through research, you will also discover if the study cited is pre-print or not.

We urge our readers to also do a bit of research when they encounter similar articles. Doing research also allows you to further understand the topic at hand.

We may sound like a broken record but think before you click; read before you share. If in doubt, do your research before sharing or don't share it at all.


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