Medical Research Journals-The Rise and Fall(?) Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I talked about how medical research journals rose to become the standard-bearers for disseminating new research findings. In this post I will focus on how medical research journals slow down – way down – the spread of research, and speculate on the growing role of social media.

“I’ll do a Medline search.”
“I found an article.”
“My research was published in [insert medical research journal].”
“According to the [insert medical research journal]. . .”

These phrases are common and have been around for years. But so are:

“I was tweeted these results,”
“Just presented at the [insert conference or meeting]”, and
“According to my Facebook feed. . .”

Costs down, delays up at medical research journals

Imagine you are in business; to produce your product, you get your raw materials for free. Your quality control process is free. Even your distribution costs consist of little more than an internet server.

This describes the medical research journal production process. Researchers do not get paid for their hard work by the journal (for open access journals, they may have to pay thousands to get their work published). Peer review – arguably the only aspect of the medical publication biz that makes it unique from other methods of publishing research – is performed by volunteers. The only cost for many journals is the skeleton editorial staff needed to process submissions, decide on what will be published, and lay out the journal.

Sharp angle of a desk calendarDespite this low overhead I have noticed a profound slowing of the article publication process, probably due to insufficient staff and overburdened editors. I am about to have a paper published that took over a year from submission to acceptance; it’ll be another 6 months before it is published.

I just finished an achingly slow process with a second paper. The editor sent me changes; I returned the article in a few days. One month later. . . more changes. Quick turnaround on my end. . . another month before I heard anything. Editors of smaller journals usually have a day job, and I can only imagine they are not paid enough to spend much more than a couple hours a week as an editor.

The role of social media

If medical research journals are the container ships transporting new research, Twitter, Facebook, and others are supersonic transports, instantly winging findings around the world. The idea for this blog post started with a Tweet I received a few hours ago from a British colleague who wondered why a presenter at a medical research meeting would have a “no-tweet” rule.

Red X over Man taking picture with cameraAt some medical conferences researchers will sometimes ask attendees not to take pictures of slides (a common practice in the iPhone age) or disseminate the results via social media. I suppose there is some worry that their research findings will be appropriated and published by others. The bigger worry, though, is that the medical research journal editors might see their tweeted research as “old news” and not consider it for publication.

Academic tweets?

In my Twitterverse (which includes #meded, #EBM, and #infomastery), there is a lively conversation going on now about the role of social media in academia. Right now, blogs, Tweets, and posts have little academic weight. But maybe they should? Maybe, instead of peer review, we can use the number of “likes” to judge one’s contribution? Maybe collections of social media posts will now be appended to CVs submitted for promotion?

I doubt it. However, social media is becoming ever more relevant. I e-mail probably a dozen useful tweets to my Luddite colleagues who are not part of the Twitterverse. When I sit down to write my research summaries that will become daily POEMs I already have read the thoughts of several bloggers and tweeters about the article. Crowdsourcing is a beautiful thing.

All medical information is relative

There are those who will decry, in this era of fake news, the wild west, anyone-can-post anything of social media. Similarly, John Ioannadis continually battles against the notion that the published literature is the holy writ. No matter what the information source, we can park our critical faculties at the door when we enter. In the end, we have to use – and trust – our own thinking.


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