The vital importance of being inclusive

The subject journals in the BMC series have clarified the description of their editorial threshold, to make it clear that scientific validity rather than potential impact is the key factor in making editorial decisions. I discuss what this means and why an inclusive approach is important.


‘The importance of being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde highlighted the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from, and of being able to communicate that to other people. For 16 years the BMC series has had the aim of making scientific knowledge widely available, through open access, open data and ensuring that all publishable research across biology, health sciences and medicine has a home. These goals remain as important to us as they were 16 years ago; they are who we are and where we come from. To emphasize the importance of these principles and what they mean to us, we have clarified the description of our editorial threshold for the subject-specific journals in the BMC series.

A home for all publishable research

Of the 67 journals in the BMC series, 63 have a focus on a serving a particular research community such as public health researchers, plant biologists or nephrologists. These subject-focused journals form the backbone of the series and publish a wide variety of research. The editorial threshold of these journals is to publish all scientifically valid research, without making editorial decisions on the basis of the perceived interest or impact of the results.

It has become apparent to us over the last year that although our aim has always been to have an editorial threshold which is inclusive, our messaging to our communities has not always been as clear as we would like. It is important for our authors to know what to expect from the journals and for our reviewers and editors to know exactly what criteria they are using to assess articles. Therefore, we have clarified the description of the editorial threshold for the subject journals. Our updated wording is:

The BMC-series subject-specific journals do not make editorial decisions on the basis of the interest of a study or its likely impact. Studies must be scientifically valid; for research articles this includes a scientifically sound research question, the use of suitable methods and analysis, and following community-agreed standards relevant to the research field. Specific criteria for other article types can be found in the submission guidelines.

Why is this important?

For some years now, the problems of publication bias in research have been a focus of discussions at conferences and in the blogosphere. A quick search brings up examples from the BMJ, the blogs of the Committee on Publication Ethics and BioMed Central and many more. The result of this is the over-emphasis of positive results and researchers struggling to publish null results or results which reproduce (or don’t reproduce) established ideas. Our approach on the BMC series is important in addressing this, as we ensure that all findings which are useful and which provide knowledge, information or data to the research community can be published. If a research question was worth asking, then the results should be part of the published record.

Addressing the problems of publication bias needs more than just a clear editorial threshold and the BMC series takes a variety of approaches to address this. The medical journals in the series have a policy of open peer review, with signed reports published alongside the article providing a more transparent review process, and we are also piloting a results-blind peer review model on BMC Psychology. This pilot will test whether review of the methods alone reduces bias by preventing reviewers from judging a study on the basis of its outcome.

As well as reducing publication bias, our approach to being inclusive has an impact on many aspects of how we interact with our authors. We want to support authors who have produced scientifically valid work but for whom language or presentation could be a barrier for publication by giving them opportunities to revise, giving clear advice about how to present and format their manuscripts, and where appropriate directing them to suitable language editing services. We encourage our editors to provide constructive comments if they believe that there are scientific flaws which would prevent publication, to support their assessment and help authors improve their work.

Of course, being inclusive means considering the work which is exciting too, the research which will have a huge impact, and we work with our authors to ensure that their work reaches the widest possible audience. We promote research published with us through this blog, the journal homepages, the BMC series twitter account and working closely with our PR and marketing teams in highlighting content to a wide audience.

What does it mean for research to be scientifically valid?

A criticism aimed at scientific publishing in recent years is that the proliferation of content means that some of what is published is not of sufficient quality for other members of the research community to trust. Ensuring that work is scientifically valid through rigorous peer review processes is important to us. Being scientifically valid requires that a valid research question has been addressed appropriately using suitable methods and analysis. It means that the conclusions are based clearly on the data provided and any limitations in the study are clearly described. It also means that the research meets the standards set by that community, in terms of the techniques used as well as in placing the research in the context of what is already known.

In order to ensure that the work published in the BMC series can be trusted to have met this standard of scientific validity we work closely with our academic Section Editors and Associate Editors who provide invaluable expertise. The in-house Editors and Assistant Editors also work closely with the BioMed Central Research Integrity Group to ensure that our rigorous editorial policies are followed.

Who are we?

At the end of the Oscar Wilde play, the protagonist finds out to his delight that he is who he thought he was all along. On the BMC series, we have always known who we are and what we stand for. Our hope is that our updated editorial threshold for the subject-specific journals will help to make this clearer to our authors, editors and reviewers, across all the research communities who we serve and work alongside to ensure that scientific knowledge is available to all.

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Kobus Eloff

I was concerned when the change in policy was originally mentioned. I can see the value of publishing negative results when an important question is asked and proper techniques were used in line with the standards set by the community.
I work in the field of medicinal plants and investigating an important biological activity on some plant species using proper techniques could lead to an avalanche of papers unless we agree that the activity found has to be pharmacologically significant [standard set by the community]. I think that these standards should be made available on the journal website.
At one stage I was even concerned that there was an economical incentive for the BMC series to make it easier to publish more papers and obtain more income.

Diana Marshall

Thank you for your comment Kobus, and for all the time that you put in as a Section Editor for BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I agree that it would be great to get some more information on the community standards relevant to this journal on the website – do talk to the Editor as there is definitely the potential to incorporate this – possibly as an editorial from some of the Section Editors.

I hope that this blog as well as our previous conversations about this have addressed your concerns on all these points.

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