Policy change before peer review: OA needed?

A noteworthy situation has been reported in several recent articles. Public health policy (in this case, about flu shots) is being influenced by a research study that is currently undergoing peer review at an unidentified medical journal.This situation provides an attention-grabbing example of the dilemma in research ethics that must be faced about  preliminary research results of great public interest. Should such results be available for public scrutiny as soon as possible? Or, should concerns about impact on public perceptions (or, misperceptions) justify delays while experts in the field evaluate the results?

One solution to this dilemma has been the recent launch of PLoS Currents: Influenza: “PLoS Currents: Influenza aims to enable this exchange [of scientific results and ideas] by providing an open-access online resource for immediate, open communication and discussion of new scientific data, analyses, and ideas in the field of influenza. All content is moderated by an expert group of influenza researchers, but in the interest of timeliness, does not undergo in-depth peer review“.

Comment: My own preference? The tradeoff between possible risks and possible benefits is a challenging one, but I favor the use of PLoS Currents: Influenza as the less paternalistic route. [See Wikipedia entries about paternalism and soft paternalism]. [See also a previous post in this blog about PLoS Currents].

Examples of relevant articles about this situation:

1) MOH cautious on flu shot fears by Helen Branswell in thestar.com, September 23, 2009 [Twitter entry][FriendFeed entry]. Excerpt:

Unpublished Canadian data are raising concerns about whether it’s a good idea to get a seasonal flu shot this season.

2) Like several other provinces, BC, PEI, to delay seasonal flu shots for under 65s by Helen Branswell, Canadian Press, September 28, 2009 [Twitter entry][FriendFeed entry]. Excerpt:

British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have joined a growing list of provinces that have announced they will delay part of their seasonal flu shot programs this year, decisions which are partially fuelled by concerns raised by controversial and unpublished Canadian research.

3) More flu programs suspended by Caroline Alphonso, The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2009. Excerpts:

Lead authors, Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and Gaston De Serres of Laval University, have submitted their findings to an unnamed scientific journal and may not comment until it is published.


The findings have yet to be published, but word of it has prompted provinces and territories to revamp their vaccination programs.

4) B.C. announces seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccine strategy by Shane Bigham, News1130, September 28, 2009. Excerpt:

The postponement of the seasonal flu shot is also in response to an unpublished Canadian medical study which seems to indicate that people who have received the seasonal flu shot are more likely to catch the H1N1. The findings of that study are still up for peer review and have not been reported in other parts of the world.



  1. Jim Till said

    See also: Is this a case of embargos gone wrong? Victoria Stern, The Scientist Community, September 25, 2009.

  2. Jim Till said

    Another relevant article: Provincial flu plans all over the map by Caroline Alphonso, The Globe and Mail, Oct. 01, 2009. Excerpt: “We’ll know who’s smarter at the end of the flu season,” said Ross Upshur, director of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics and a primary care physician. “What we assuredly have is an outbreak of unpublished research which is causing an epidemic of confusion.”

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