‘Democratisation of knowledge’ here to stay, says epidemiologist

Salim Abdool Karim welcomes increased transparency of research brought about by pandemic but says it has also brought its challenges

May 31, 2022

The “democratisation of knowledge” that was brought about by the Covid-19 crisis can never be reversed and is still a good thing despite the struggles scientists have faced when trying to advise the public during the pandemic, according to a leading African epidemiologist.

Salim Abdool Karim – who has been called the Anthony Fauci of South Africa after taking a major role in the country’s response to the crisis – welcomed the increased accessibility of science since March 2020 but said that researchers must learn to trust the public and not hide uncertainty where it exists.

Speaking at the World Conference on Research Integrity, he described some of the difficulties he faced in communicating about the virus while taking part in televised national briefings at a time when “truthfulness had become a casualty of the pandemic”.

He warned about the dangers of “speculation masquerading as scientific advice” and conspiracy theorists who offer a simplified way of explaining the world and give people someone to blame for their “anxieties and misfortunes”, in a way that science never could.

But the opportunities presented by the experience were still “amazing”, said Professor Karim, pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Caprisa professor for global health in epidemiology at Columbia University.

“Science was so empowering to people through the democratisation of knowledge and the way in which we had increased accessibility over the course of the pandemic”, he told the conference, held at the University of Cape Town.

“Science was no longer being done in ivory towers, the language and idiom of epidemiology was now in everyday discussions and scientific evidence was empowering people to understand the virus and prevent it.”

Professor Karim said that he had seen a “polarised world” develop during the pandemic with some researchers attempting to shun any public communication of their findings and others taking “every little result” to the media. In the middle, he said, was another group more focused on conveying information responsibly.

He called for a recalibration in the relationship between science and society because “we are not going back to the way things were.”

This, according to Professor Karim, should be based on learnings from the pandemic including the need to trust people with “hard truths” and not hide uncertainty. Where it does exist, scientists should explain differing results and not cherry-pick findings to suit their arguments, he said.

At the same event, Miriam Sabin, preprints editor at The Lancet, said that the trend for publishing early-stage evidence from studies as preprints that mushroomed during the pandemic was here to stay and brings with it both challenges and difficulties.

She said that the attention on research that had not yet been peer-reviewed shifted the scrutiny process from experts to journalists, increasing the risk that findings can be “weaponised” to lobby for or against the use of certain drugs or interventions such as lockdowns.

But it also made the research process more equitable by allowing input from researchers across the world at an early stage and ensuring vital information was shared widely at a point when it could be most useful, she said.

The Lancet used a disclaimer when printing a preprint, Ms Sabin said, which states that the findings should “not be used for clinical or public health decision-making and should not be presented to a lay audience without highlighting that they are preliminary”.

Editors also reserved the right to remove papers if concerns are raised about their integrity and place watermarks on the text to make it clearer that the report is at the preprint stage.

Ms Sabin called for best practice guidance to be developed and disseminated to other journals to encourage the adoption of similar practices.


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