Tell us a little about your work. What are the challenges?
Together with Prof Doug Altman, I lead the development of the EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) programme in Oxford. The programme’s launch was in response to the growing unhappiness about the state of the medical research literature. Those of us who read research papers often feel frustrated, sometimes because we cannot access a full paper, but more often because it does not provide sufficient detail or clear descriptions. We cannot judge how well the study was done and what was actually found. These deficiencies create problems, particularly for people who work on systematic reviews, which aim to pull together similar studies and compare their findings. Poor reporting of crucial information, such as participants’ eligibility criteria, the randomisation process, descriptions of an intervention and its delivery, selective reporting of outcomes (often only the ‘positive’ outcomes) and non-reporting of harmful effects, is unfortunately very common. This makes the reliable interpretation of published findings difficult or even impossible.
How can EQUATOR help researchers?
EQUATOR has developed an online library (http://www.equator-network.org/) of reporting guidelines, providing researchers with easy access to all of the relevant guidelines in one place. Many journals (including the BMJ, Lancet, JAMA, Science Translational Medicine and many specialty journals) now require authors to follow these guidelines.
Anyone who has prepared a research manuscript knows that it is not easy to decide (and remember) what information to include while maintaining readability and a reasonable manuscript length. Reporting guidelines are designed to help researchers make these decisions. They provide structured advice on the minimum information that should be included in an article reporting a particular type of medical research. Guidelines focus on scientific content and thus complement journals’ instructions to authors, which mostly deal with the technicalities of submitted manuscripts. Some guidelines provide generic frameworks for defined study types (e.g. CONSORT for reporting randomised trials and STROBE for observational studies), but most are more specific and provide guidance relevant to a particular medical speciality or aspect of research (e.g. economic evaluations or the description of biospecimens).
Why do you think this is important? Why does it matter?
We all want to make a difference with our work. Describing our research clearly, accurately and completely is a necessary part of its future translation into clinical practice and further research. We also have a moral responsibility to our research participants and patients, who volunteer their participation and expect their contribution to be fully utilised.
No-one wants their research to just be published and forgotten, or to find itself on the ‘exclusion pile’. As one systematic review reported, ‘We included 4 studies with a total of 83 participants… A further 11 studies met the inclusion criteria but were excluded due to poor data reporting… Most of the potentially relevant data were unusable, hence it is impossible to draw firm conclusions.’
How many people are there in your team? What are EQUATOR’s future plans?
Prof Altman founded EQUATOR in 2008 and I was very fortunate to be part of the small team that launched the initiative. Our activities are not purely research, but are necessary for research to make a difference. Although it has not always been easy to secure funding, we have managed to sustain the programme and build a great team. EQUATOR now operates from three centres, in the UK, France and Canada. The UK EQUATOR Centre is hosted by the Centre for Statistics in Medicine, NDORMS, which has been incredibly supportive of our work.
Our team develops and maintains its unique library of online resources, mainly thanks to the hard work of Shona Kirtley, our Senior Information Specialist. We also run training courses and organise education events. For example, our new writing course, the EQUATOR Publication School, has just been launched. Contact Caroline Struthers, our Education Manager, if you would like more information! We plan to engage more people in promoting (and adhering to) the principles of good research reporting and are currently preparing toolkits to aid in this work. We are also launching a new open access journal, Research Integrity and Peer Review, in May. It will cover all aspects of integrity in research, such as peer review, study reporting, and research and publication ethics. I will be one of the Editors-in-chief and am very much looking forward to this new challenge.
Dr Iveta Simera, Deputy Director, UK EQUATOR Centre
Centre for Statistics in Medicine, NDORMS, University of Oxford
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