COVID-19 and the Epidemic of False Information: DFG President Katja Becker presents at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF)

(09/23/20) At the virtual ESOF20 conference, the American Association for the AAAS organized a group of experts on the evening of September 4th to address the question of how to preserve the integrity of the scientific system under the current pressure of the coronavirus pandemic. Katja Becker was invited to attend as the president of an important research funding organization. Moderated by Rick Weiss, director of an information platform for science journalists at the AAAS (SciLine), she conversed with Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sudip Parikh, CEO of the AAAS, and Helen Branswell, a science journalist specializing in infectious diseases.

Logo: ESOF 2020


They focused on the special challenges currently facing the usually well-rehearsed system of knowledge generation, control, and publication of findings and finally the feedback from scientific research into policymaking and society. Preprints play a special role here, since they represent a firmly established biotope in the science system for results that have not yet been subjected to peer review or published in quality-assured journals. They have their benefits within the system because they enable a much more rapid and direct exchange of ideas and concepts, given that the scientific community is well aware the findings are not yet substantiated.

The panel of experts discussed how to maintain the integrity of the scientific process under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.

The panel of experts discussed how to maintain the integrity of the scientific process under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.


Yet this reservation regarding findings quickly disappears when it comes to the scientific press, especially if preprints can be used to effectively create public-oriented or politically exploitable "stories" on highly charged topics such as COVID-19. Branswell listed a few examples of these. Becker felt this resulted in the pandemic being accompanied by an "epidemic of false information,” which research and funding organizations had to resolutely confront with the help of responsible journalists and science communicators like AAAS and ESOF. Brossard pointed out that high standards of due diligence are the norm in science journalism. At the fringes, however, there is now economic pressure that frequently results in hasty decisions, which spread via social media within seconds. Journalists use the numerous preprint servers to find interesting suppositions or partial findings; some of them then assemble these into a "substantiated finding.” Parikh felt that, especially in such difficult times, these processes become self-perpetuating due to a public’s need for information that has neither the patience nor the ability to differentiate the content of scientific discourse.

Becker suggested that, although the public and political pressure it receives does not influence the DFG's funding decisions, it is nevertheless in the DFG's best interests that the trust in scientific research not be undermined by unsubstantiated findings or false information. All participants in the discussion agreed: only diligence that is commensurate with the responsibility of dealing with scientific suppositions or as yet unsubstantiated findings can maintain that essential trust in the scientific system and its methods. There is a significant, and currently acute, need for training in this area.