More than a decade ago Altman and Chalmers envisaged a new way to publish clinical research. They proposed that, facilitated by the advent of electronic journals, a new age of transparency in science communication might soon be upon us.
In their 1999 article in The Lancet, they wrote: “Electronic publication of a protocol could be simply the first element in a sequence of ‘threaded’ electronic publications, which continues with reports of the resulting research (published in sufficient detail to meet some of the criticisms of less detailed reports published in print journals), followed by deposition of the complete data set.”
This prescient statement came five years before the registration of clinical trials became a prerequisite for publication in most major medical journals.
Progress to this ideal has been slow – perhaps frustratingly so – but a number of new initiatives at BioMed Central should help speed the pace of change. We are working with new and existing editors to develop novel journals, incentives and technology to help further realise the benefits of increased transparency in scientific research – from conception through to meta-analysis and data deposition. These include:
Technology: Authors registering trials in any one of the four largest, global trial registration databases will, for all articles published from 2011, find seamless links between their trial record and study protocol published in a BioMed Central journal, and any subsequent article reporting the outcomes of the trial that includes the trial identifier in the abstract. The links will be present in both full text and PDF versions (PDF example pictured).
Incentives: The avoidance of the deleterious effects on science and human health of publication bias are strong incentives in themselves. However, authors who register a clinical trial with BioMed Central’s sister publishing service Current Controlled Trials, are from 2011 entitled to a 20% discount on the article processing charge (APC) if their study protocol is accepted for publication in Trials or a BMC Series medical journal. Furthermore, authors of these study protocols are entitled to a 20% discount on the APC of any subsequent article reporting the results of the same trial.
Journals: A number of our journals have a keen interest in data – the foundation of science – and are experimenting with innovative approaches to publishing, not least Prof Doug Altman’s journal Trials. Journals such as Trials and BMC Research Notes further increase transparency in the scientific record by considering scientifically sound articles regardless of outcome or significance of findings. And we are working with life and computer scientists to provide novel journals and platforms for data sharing and publication, particularly in medical science where few designated open access repositories exist.
We continue to see an important role for medical case reports, particularly for the early identification of adverse reactions in trials of new treatments. As a further incentive authors of case reports resulting from any trial published and registered with BioMed Central’s publishing services will receive the same 20% discount if their case is accepted by Journal of Medical Case Reports.
All medical journals involved in this pilot initiative – from the BMC Series, Trials and Journal of Medical Case Reports – use open peer review. The reviewers’ reports, and authors’ responses to them, are published online as pre-publication history with each article, which further increases transparency.
Although linking of major trial registration records to our articles is just one component of Altman and Chalmers’ seminal concept, it is an important step towards better putting threaded publications into practice.