BMJ 2002;324:1176 ( 11 May )
David Spurgeon Quebec
A study of accelerated publication versus the usual forms of publication in two leading medical journals shows that current practices for selecting articles to be "fast-tracked" are inconsistent.
Authors of the study, which appears in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association's journal (2002;166:1137-43), are from four Canadian universities and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
The researchers identified six articles from each of two journals—the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet—that were prereleased on the journals’ websites, and they then matched them with 12 control articles, according to the journal, disease or procedure, theme area, and year of publication. Using a 10 point scale, 42 general internists rated the articles on importance, ease of applicability, and impact on health outcomes.
The fast-tracked articles on average had slightly higher importance and applicability scores than the controls, but the differences were modest, and five of the 12 controls were considered to be of similar or greater importance than the fast-tracked ones.
The authors concluded that "journals in some instances are not expediting the publication or release of important articles, and in other instances are selecting relatively less important articles for expedited publication . . . Journals now need to find ways to consistently rate the importance of every submitted article so that all important articles can be objectively considered for accelerated peer review and publication."
Although a number of other journals have developed policies for fast-tracking, including the BMJ, CMAJ, JAMA, Science, and Nature, the authors said that until their investigation, "no study [had] formally assessed the importance, methodological quality and general visibility of fast-tracked articles relative to those published in the usual manner."
They acknowledged a number of weaknesses in their study but believe that despite these it "does generate useful information," and they hope it will stimulate dialogue among editors offering accelerated publication.
In a commentary accompanying the study, Jerome Kassirer, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and now professor adjunct at Yale University School of Medicine, suggested that medical journals, most of which have websites, could publish all their contents electronically as soon as the manuscripts are accepted for publication and edited.
"At present, medical information remains a commodity hoarded by a relatively small number of publishers, yet in fact it is a public good, paid for largely by the public," he wrote. The publishers should explore how to get such information where it is needed more rapidly and efficiently for the common good, he suggested.
In another commentary, medical journalist André Picard said the process that journalists and news editors in the mass media use in selecting which journal articles to cover is an imperfect one, so that "the lay press and the scientific press have a lot more in common than we probably care to admit." He added: "And we should both endeavour to do better, for the sake of the public that should ultimately benefit from scientific research."