We ought to get all findings out fast

August 31, 2007

The public interest is not served by publishers sitting on the results of scientific research. It's time for the practice to end, says Bob Ward

If you leafed through a newspaper or watched a TV news bulletin on July 16, the chances are that you learnt of research findings that linked the consumption of grapefruit with higher risks of breast cancer. It was typical of study results that are reported in scientific and medical journals on a weekly basis, the wide dissemination of which is clearly in the public interest. Yet why did the British Journal of Cancer wait almost a month after the paper was accepted for publication to release it to the media? The answer reflects the pervasive legacy of a marketing strategy devised by a journal editor who died years ago.

Franz Ingelfinger was editor of The New England Journal of Medicine between 1967 and 1977. Two years into his editorship, he declared that he would carry only papers that had been "neither published nor submitted elsewhere (including news media and controlled-circulation publications)". Although simply an articulation of practices already operated by some other journals, this statement soon gathered wide support among other editors and eventually acquired the name "the Ingelfinger rule".

One recent study suggested that almost three quarters of major publishers now enforce the rule, and its central principle has been endorsed by bodies such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. The two most prominent multidisciplinary scientific publications, Nature and Science , both incorporate the Ingelfinger rule in their instructions to authors, as do leading medical journals such as The Lancet .

In its most severe form, it means that a journal will refuse to consider a submitted paper if it has already received media coverage. At the very least, it means that an author is discouraged from talking to journalists about the paper before the journal's own efforts to gain media coverage have begun.

Supporters of the Ingelfinger rule point out that it prevents the premature disclosure of research results before they have been scrutinised and approved for wider circulation by independent peer review. On the whole, this has its benefits for the public, even if peer review is not always effective at filtering out research that is poorly devised and executed, erroneously interpreted or even fabricated.

Whatever the advantages of preventing disclosure of results before they have undergone peer review, it is less clear what public benefit there is to delaying media coverage of a paper once it has been accepted for publication. Preparing a paper for appearance in a journal once it has cleared peer review depends on the volume of work and the resources available to the publisher. The length of delay also depends on the publisher's schedule, which takes account of marketing priorities. Journals like to publish at regular intervals, with batches of papers of roughly the same size. An article can take longer to appear if it is stuck in a queue.

But another decisive factor is that most journals want to gain publicity for themselves through media coverage of the papers they publish. If an author talks to journalists about his or her paper once it has been accepted but before it has been published, there is a danger that the publication will not receive a credit in any resulting media coverage. And these days, many publishers believe that media coverage increases demand for their products and hence boosts their income.

As a result, there is often a gap of many weeks or months between the date on which a paper is accepted and the date on which the media are able to report its existence. In the case of research that might influence the behaviour of policy-makers, businesses or citizens, this delay might mean that decisions are made without crucial information that would be otherwise available if it were not for the marketing strategy of a journal. In such cases, enforcement of the Ingelfinger rule creates a conflict between the interests of the journal and the public.

It does not have to be this way. Members of the public do not need a paper to be in its final published form before they learn of its contents. Journal papers are often too technical and jargon-laden for a layperson and frequently omit a proper discussion of implications for the public. Journalists really need access only to the authors, and perhaps the manuscript, to prepare a full and accurate report. There must be a case for journals to set aside their marketing interests to promote the public interest by making manuscripts available as soon as they are approved for publication. This would finally loosen the steel grip that Franz Ingelfinger is still applying nearly three decades after his death.

Bob Ward is director of Global Science Networks at Risk Management Solutions. The views expressed are his own.

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