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Final-year medical students, Ibrahim and Alicia, share details of their Special Studies Module (SSM) project; carried out alongside Dr. David Nunan at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.

Profile pictures of final year medical students, Ibrahim and Alicia


We were both interested in gaining more experience in appraising and conducting systematic reviews, which is becoming an increasingly important skill for clinicians. 


Prior to the SSM, we’d had previous introductory teaching sessions during our fourth year of medical school, so we hoped that this SSM would give us a chance to spend time getting familiar with key EBM concepts and ideas, while putting them into practice through conducting our own project. 


We started the SSM with an introductory meeting to discuss the project we were going to be working on during the three weeks. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large corpus of research articles have been published on the topic of COVID-19 infection and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a number of which were subsequently retracted. Our project focuses on a database curated by Retraction Watch, which has identified over 220 retracted articles on COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 to date. Our aim is to assess the nature and characteristics of the retracted articles. We will also examine the retraction notices for each of the retracted articles to evaluate their adherence to the guidelines recommended by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

We began by putting together our project protocol; a document that outlines what our project is and how we will go about collecting and analysing the data. We then registered it on the Open Science Framework (OSF) website , an open-access platform where researchers can share their research protocols, data and outputs.


Although some smaller analyses of the retracted COVID-19 literature have been published, our project has the advantage of access to the complete database from Retraction Watch. As such, by the end of our project, we believe it will be the most comprehensive analysis of the retracted publications on COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 literature to date. We hope to identify key characteristics of the retractions, such as the proportion of articles which were retracted due to research misconduct, and find out which publishers or journals had the most retractions. Our findings aim to support interventions to minimise the risk of publishing studies that are later retracted.


In addition to regular meetings to work on our project, we also attended tutorials where we discussed the levels of evidence and went through a step-by-step approach to appraising systematic reviews, including how to interpret the most common statistical data plots such as a forest plot, which we found very useful. We were even given access to CEBM learning modules on systematic reviews via Canvas, so we could consolidate and engage in further reading in our own time. 


Overall, it’s been a brilliantly organised SSM and we feel that we’ve definitely developed valuable skills, including designing and registering a study protocol, putting together a data extraction platform, and collaborating with experienced researchers who have guided us through the whole process. We hope to carry these skills further by seeing our project through to completion and eventually submitting it for publication. 

We would highly recommend an SSM in EBM to other students, especially if they have an interest in research! 

Opinions expressed are those of the author/s and not of the University of Oxford. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.


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