Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research

EQUATOR resources in Portuguese | Spanish

Reporting guidelines and journals: fact & fiction

We’ve spoken to editors and publishers about why they haven’t implemented reporting guidelines yet. Here are some common reasons why you might be hesitating about taking up the GoodReports challenge. For each common misgiving, read evidence for the positive impact of using reporting guidelines, the impact of not using them, and the tools we offer you to overcome any barriers you encounter. This short article in Science Editor also explains how reporting guidelines can support the work that journal editors do.

What are reporting guidelines supposed to accomplish?

Reporting guidelines are here to make all of our lives easier – author, reader, peer reviewer, journal, and systematic reviewer.

A weight of evidence has found that a staggering number of the health research articles published each year are not fit for purpose. They do not include enough information about the study for a reader to properly understand and evaluate it, or for a researcher to replicate it, or for a systematic reviewer to include it in a review.  The work thus cannot be added to the body of clinical evidence used for clinical decision-making and is wasted.

Our current publishing and academic reward systems is clearly insufficient for treating this problem.

Reporting guidelines are an important step towards fixing the deficiencies in our scientific literature. Groups of clinicians, academics, systematic reviewers, and statisticians have come together to define the minimum set of information that each group needs to be able to use a particular kind of study. Reporting guidelines now exist for most general study types. Specific guidelines have also been created for particular outcomes and methods that are routinely reported badly.

If authors use reporting guidelines when they write up their work, the resulting manuscripts can be understood, replicated, and used in clinical decision-making.

Aren’t reporting guidelines are just another box-checking exercise?

Reporting guidelines should be used while writing an article, not as a box-checking exercise at the submission stage. You may find poor compliance the first time that an author submits after you implement guidelines. This toolkit includes a template letter to the author requesting resubmission once the article has been made compliant with the relevant guideline. This letter includes an explanation of why reporting guidelines are necessary and a link back to the EQUATOR Network. As authors become educated about reporting guidelines, they will integrate their use in their writing process and, we hope, eventually use them at the research design phase, to ensure every item requested by a guideline has been considered.

Some authors require authors to submit a checklist indicating the page number on which each guideline information item has been addressed. This is not simply an administrative hurdle, but helps authors to report every necessary item, acting as a ‘completeness review’.

Do reporting guidelines actually help transparency, usability, and reproducibility?

Yes! We see a significant increase in reporting quality when a journal endorses a reporting guideline.

Peer and editorial review can pick up the problems you’re mentioning; we don’t need reporting guidelines

We know that existing peer and editorial review are not enough to ensure complete reporting. Every clinical specialty and every study type that has been checked suffers from poor reporting.

In fact, reporting guidelines are a helpful tool for peer reviewers! They help the reviewer to systematically check that all essential information has been reported.

We don’t have anyone who can deal with reporting guidelines

Included within this toolkit is a selection of tools to make implementing guidelines as simple as possible. We have a workflow for a simple ‘endorse’ route that only requires a change to your ‘Instructions to Authors’ and links for authors to get reporting guidelines if they wish.

Some journals that have chosen to implement the ‘require checklist’ route have trained their editorial administrative staff to check guideline compliance on submission, as part of submission triage. If you choose to implement guidelines through this route, you can access training here.

Some journals that have chosen to implement the ‘require checklist’ route ask a first peer reviewer to check guideline compliance, before recruiting a second and third reviewer. If the manuscript fails, peer review halts and the article is returned. The toolkit includes a template letter to the author requesting resubmission once the article has been made compliant with the relevant guideline. This letter includes an explanation of why reporting guidelines are necessary and a link back to the EQUATOR Network. The toolkit also includes template instructions to peer reviewers and editable versions of common checklists with additional explanation for reviewers to use.

Authors won’t choose our journal if they have to deal with reporting guidelines

Journals that have used either the ‘require’ or ‘endorse’ routes for reporting guidelines have found no significant change in their submission rates. We have a workflow for a simple ‘endorse’ route that places no requirements on authors that you may feel more comfortable starting with.

Some clinical specialties have reached a critical mass of journals implementing reporting guidelines.

Implementing reporting guidelines will delay publication

Implementing reporting guidelines speeds up publication of well-reported articles and speeds up rejection of poorly reported articles:

Asking peer reviewers to use reporting guidelines will delay review

Articles written using a reporting guideline are formulaic; there’s no room for creativity

Reporting guidelines give a minimum set of information that must be included in an article for it to be transparent, reproducible, and usable. Guidelines do not prescribe the language that authors should use to report this information. Guidelines are also not prescriptive about the introduction, discussion, and interpretation sections of an article. Guidelines have the most to say about the methods and results sections: if important information is missing here, then the article is useless. A creatively written scientific article that cannot be understood, used in a systematic review, or integrated into a clinician’s practice is not a scientific article, it is science fiction.

My journal can’t afford to implement reporting guidelines

Included within this toolkit is selection of tools to make implementing guidelines as simple as possible. We have a workflow for a simple ‘endorse’ route that only requires a change to your ‘Instructions to Authors’ and links for authors to get reporting guidelines if they wish.

Good reporting isn’t a journal’s responsibility

Good reporting is everyone’s responsibility.

Implementing guidelines is too onerous for authors

Reporting guidelines offer authors a clear template when writing their manuscript. They don’t have to spend as much time worrying about whether they are missing crucial details and how to best report their methodology.

If authors haven’t considered every item in a checklist, writing their manuscript may indeed take longer. However, this lack of consideration points to potential flaws in the methodology; better these are caught and corrected at the writing stage than going to peer review and wasting the time of overworked reviewers.