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Researching COVID-19

The Information Cycle


Information is available in different types of sources based on the amount of time that has elapsed from the main event. This progression transforms how information is communicated, and its depth. This is known as the information cycle, or the information timeline. COVID-19 is a relatively new phenomenon and is making it's way through this cycle.

Social Media

When a story breaks, information is typically shared on social media. This often includes first person accounts or reposts of those experiences. It is quick information, and can be prone to bias and error. An individual is reacting to something, without all the potential information. Right now, there is a significant amount of social media information about COVID-19 to wade through, and should be evaluated thoroughly. Everyone has their own experiences and those are being shared to social media.

Newspapers and Magazines

As the story matures, and more information is available (through journalistic research and fact collection), a newspaper or a magazine article is published. This information can be posted within hours (such as on a news website like CNN) or within days in print. Sites like CBC news release a daily overview of new developments. This can also include longer and in depth researched articles written by journalists. Reputable news outlets work to provide accurate information as quick as possible. As COVID-19 continues through, we learn more and more and new information is created. Information from May 2020 is outdated, perhaps even information October 2021. Look for multiple sources and the most recent information.

Trade Publications and Academic Journals

Trade publications and academic journals typically take months to publish any relevant findings, due to the extensive original research, or scholarly literature reviews. Medical research can take even longer because these require many levels of trials and the research process. Academic journals have an added layer of peer-review. Peer-reviewed articles are typically considered some of the best sources of information because multiple experts in the field have evaluated the information. We'll talk more about the peer-review process next. Since medical research (and most academic research) can take so long to be published, use a healthy level of evaluation and skepticism for any "miracle drugs" or cures. New research you will find may be retrospective observational studies. That is, they have taken a large number of patient records and analyzed them for things like condition, methods used and demographics to identify trends and are reporting on those findings.

Now that we're much further into the pandemic, you'll notice some articles have been retracted, which means, they've found errors with the findings of the article. Make sure you don't pull retracted articles. 

Books

When information makes it into a book, it has reached the end of the continuum, as it can take up to a year to publish a book. You may find a few books on COVID-19 at this point. These won't be in depth researched books, and may be classified as "popular science". If you find a book, critically evaluate the information in it. You may find that the book doesn't have that much to do about COVID-19 and may actually be helpful to you in finding angles and related fields to pull information from. These books might go in depth into how viruses are transmitted, or how disease can impact the market chain, which is still helpful information.

The below is a general timeline from event to recorded information. Note that not all events end up as scholarly articles or books. Having trouble viewing the graphic below? Try maximizing your screen or click here to view in a new window.

Sharing information about COVID-19 is like playing Telephone


Do you remember the game Telephone? Where one person whispers a message to another person, who whispers it to another and it goes all down the line and the last person shares what the message is and is usually some version of the initial message, but not quite. Information, specifically COVID-19 information, is just like that.

Researchers publish their findings. Industry interprets those findings, applies them and shares them. News outlets interpret it more and share the information with the public. Individuals interpret that information for themselves.

You'll want to track information back to the original source to find out what was the original message, and the original intent. When looking at scholarly sources, this is pretty easy, it should have a citation. Unfortunately, most information does not come with a citation and may require some sleuthing.

For example, the general idea that has been spreading around is "hydroxychloroquine can prevent COVID-19."

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Many people have been stating this claim and have been taking this drug as a preventative method against COVID-19. How about we follow this trail back to the original source.

Going backwards in time, just a small bit to May and June 2020, we can find U.S. President Donald Trump is taking the drug daily as a preventative measure (Stolgberg, 2020).

We can follow this trail back to find slightly older news where President Trump cites a French study and eventually saying that the drug is found to be helpful in prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and the drug is safe and won't kill anyone (Cathey, 2020).

At this point, we can actually find the original study and evaluate that information. By reading the original study we will see that the research was on the treatment and not the prevention of COVID-19 (Gautret, et al. 2020) (Cathey, 2020).

While this is a very streamlined account of this specific claim, and there has since been additional information that has come forward, we can see how information can be misconstrued and even manipulated as time goes on and the original message is interpreted over and over. Following information back to the original source is a requirement for anyone looking to research COVID-19. This is both because of the amount of misinformation, and because more studies are being retracted as everyone races to publish information.

Cathey, L. (2020, August 8) Timeline: Tracking Trump alongside scientific development on hydroxchloroquine. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/timeline-tracking-trump-alongside-scientific-developments-hydroxychloroquine/story?id=72170553.

Gautret, et al. (2020) Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of COVID-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, 56(1). doi: 10.1016/j.ijantimicag.2020.105949.

Stolberg, S. G. (2020, May 19) Amid Hydroxychloroquine uproar, real studies of drug are suffering. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/us/politics/hydroxychloroquine-trump-coronavirus.html.

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