When it comes to making the most out of the latest research findings in any given field, communication is key. Reporting guidelines can provide authors with the necessary advice on how best to report their research findings and methods, to ensure that published research is ultimately more reliable and of greater value to the community. Such guidelines are often associated with the field of medical research, where improved transparency and accuracy have been especially called for. Now in a study in BMC Veterinary Research, Douglas Grindlay, Rachel Dean and Marnie Brennan from the University of Nottingham, UK, and Mary Christopher from the University of California Davis, USA, report their findings on the awareness of reporting guidelines in the field of veterinary research. Here Grindlay, Dean and Brennan discuss what their survey of over 60 veterinary Editors-in-Chief revealed in terms of the Editors knowledge of reporting guidelines, their journal policies and their information needs.
What are reporting guidelines?
Reporting guidelines (also known as reporting standards or statements) are documents that provide advice on how to report research methods and findings for particular study types. They have been widely implemented by medical journals. Examples of reporting guidelines include CONSORT for randomised controlled trials, STROBE for observational studies in epidemiology and PRISMA for systematic reviews.
Why did you decide to focus on veterinary Editors-in-Chiefs’ awareness of current reporting guidelines in animal research?
There have been several studies showing poor reporting of study design and methods in published veterinary and animal research, especially for clinical trials. In our teaching of evidence-based medicine and critical appraisal in the Centre for Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine – which links in to our BestBETs for Vets database – we often find that the available studies are poorly reported, making it difficult to assess whether the findings can be directly applied to clinical practice.
As a result, we decided to carry out a survey to explore the awareness of reporting guidelines among Editors-in-Chief and to determine if there were other editorial factors that affected their use. Such a survey would provide baseline data to assess the impact of any future measures to promote the use of reporting guidelines. We therefore designed a questionnaire in partnership with Dr Mary Christopher of the International Association of Veterinary Editors (IAVE) to assess Editors-in-Chiefs’ awareness of reporting guidelines and to determine whether there were other factors that affected their use. The survey was circulated in April 2012 via the e-mail list of the IAVE.
Could you briefly summarise your main findings?
A key finding was that 53 percent of responding Editors-in-Chief knew what a reporting guideline was before receiving our survey. Just over a third of respondents said their journal referred to reporting guidelines in the instructions to authors. Barriers that were perceived to the adoption of reporting guidelines included lack of knowledge, resistance to change, difficulty in implementation and a fear that if a journal required reporting guidelines to be followed, papers would be lost to other journals. Interestingly, around two-thirds of respondents thought that reporting guidelines should be adopted by all refereed veterinary journals.
The results of your research identify that many veterinary Editors-in-Chiefs have a poor knowledge of reporting guidelines. Were you surprised by the results?
We conducted this survey as we didn’t really know how many Editors-in-Chief had previously heard of reporting guidelines. While we believed from previous studies on the quality of published research that veterinary researchers and authors were likely to have a low awareness of reporting guidelines, we were not sure whether this would apply to editors.
In our experience it seems that the worlds of veterinary journals and medical journals – where reporting guidelines are arguably better known and more widely adopted – do not overlap that much, which could limit knowledge transfer. The main area of overlap is in animal-transmitted diseases, public health and animal models of human disease. It is perhaps no co-incidence that it is in these areas of veterinary research that reporting guidelines seem to have been most widely implemented.
How do you think reporting guidelines should be encouraged/enforced? Is it the responsibility of the Editor-in-Chief to educate the author?
This is a difficult question, and potentially quite political and controversial. This is reflected by the range of responses we got to some of the questions in our survey. We ourselves tried to be totally objective in our study and not influenced by our own views on reporting guidelines. We hope we succeeded in this.
Our belief is that reporting guidelines are a good thing in general and should be encouraged by promotion to the veterinary community. Most of the items in reporting guidelines are common sense and are necessary if a paper is to be understandable and usable. They help to ensure transparency and repeatability, and facilitate critical appraisal and systematic review. Transparency and repeatability are important parts of scientific research in all disciplines. We see no reason why the relevant guidelines should not be followed as a matter of course for all published research, unless there are specific, valid reasons not to include a particular item. Is it not the responsibility of all facets of the publishing community – editors, reviewers and authors – to promote good science by reporting it in an understandable and usable way? This will require buy-in from everyone in order to strive for the publication of quality research.
We suggest that it is for veterinary editors to decide how reporting guidelines should be enforced, both individually and as a group. In practical terms, it may be difficult for editorial staff to ensure that all submitted papers follow the relevant reporting guideline. Perhaps the best way is for journals to provide checklists that authors should declare they have used, and then ask peer-reviewers to check that the requirements have been met. Reporting guidelines mostly address issues that one would hope reviewers would be considering in any case.
The concerns expressed in our survey that journals might miss out on the submission of papers if they were to enforce reporting guidelines could be valid if there is no level playing field across all veterinary journals. Several of our respondents suggested that a consensus among veterinary editors on reporting guidelines was required. This seems to be a good thing, but perhaps it is also necessary for more journals to lead so others will follow. We suggest that, in the long-term, a journal that insists that all papers follow the relevant reporting guidelines will gain a reputation for publishing high quality papers and should gain in impact factor and influence.
Regarding education about reporting guidelines, we feel this is a matter for the whole veterinary community, with particular roles identified in our survey for the International Association of Veterinary Editors and vet schools. Veterinary editors can also play a role by including information about reporting guidelines in their instructions to authors and by writing editorials and commentaries – many of the respondents in our survey had learned about reporting guidelines from other journals.
In addition to the current reporting guidelines available to researchers, do you think there is a requirement for additional veterinary specific reporting guidelines?
The main problem at the moment seems to be lack of awareness of the reporting guidelines that already exist. Perhaps it is most important to focus on the promotion of what is already available. If individuals are not aware of, or are not using these guidelines, it is difficult to say whether they are suitable or not.
There are areas in veterinary science where there are differences from medicine and human research – hence the rationale for the REFLECT statement, which is an extension of CONSORT that addresses the specific requirements of trials in livestock and food safety. There has also been discussion about developing a reporting guideline for companion animal trials called ‘Companion Animals Reporting Expectations and Standards’ (CARES), but little information is available on this currently.
While most of the items in existing reporting guidelines can be directly applied to veterinary research, it could be that having specific veterinary reporting guidelines, rather than ‘borrowing’ those of the medical world, could generate a feeling of ownership and encourage more widespread adoption.
What are the next stages for your research?
We want to publicise and talk about our findings as much as possible. Hence, we think open access publication in a BioMed Central journal is a good thing, and the article is already being highly accessed. All editors on the e-mail contact list of the International Association of Veterinary Editors have been sent a link to the article, and we in the Centre for Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine have featured it on our website and in our newsletters.
Our hope is that this study will increase the awareness of reporting guidelines. We also want to encourage discussion amongst both the publishing and wider veterinary community, as in order to make a change, researchers, peer-reviewers and editors will all need to be involved. In the longer term, we hope that if more papers follow reporting guidelines as a result, the overall quality of reporting of veterinary research will be improved.
In the long-term, there could be value in repeating the survey, to assess the impact of promotion about reporting guidelines and their implementation by veterinary journals.