Becky Hollingsworth took part in a research study that is changing how asthma is diagnosed around the world. Not every research study has this kind of impact, but all are supposed to at least contribute to scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, some don't, because they aren't published in a way that allows others to build on the data. Researchers are tackling the problem.
Becky Hollingsworth took part in a clinical research study at The Ottawa Hospital that showed a third of people who have been diagnosed with asthma don't actually have it (including her). The results, published in JAMA, are changing medical practice around the world.
Not every research study has this kind of impact, but all are supposed to at least contribute to scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, it turns out that some biomedical studies are published in a way that makes it difficult for others to interpret the results and learn from them.
Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa, led by Dr. David Moher, have taken the lead in tackling this problem.
Dr. Moher became interested in this while doing systematic reviews to solve medical controversies. This exercise involves finding and reading every single study ever published on a given topic and combining the results in an unbiased way to provide the best answer possible for a given question.
While conducting these reviews, Dr. Moher noticed that many clinical trial publications lacked key details about how the experiments were performed and how the data were analyzed. This made it difficult to know if the results were reliable.
"I found that this was a real disservice to patients," explained Dr. Moher, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. "People around the world were participating in research studies, believing that their contribution would make a difference for future patients but, in fact, some research publications were written so poorly that the results were unusable."
Dr. Moher set out to change this by developing checklists and guidelines that researchers could use to make sure their publications include all the required information. His work has been endorsed by more than 500 biomedical journals worldwide and has been called a "milestone in research methods" by the influential United States Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.
In recent years, Dr. Moher has taken on illegitimate or predatory journals. These journals rapidly publish research, typically at a lower cost than legitimate journals such as JAMA, but do not provide quality controls such as peer review.
While most people assumed that predatory journals were mainly a problem in low-income countries, Dr. Moher and his colleagues recently published a study in Nature that debunks this. They found that 57 percent of papers in suspected predatory journals are actually from high- or upper-middle-income countries.
"The vast majority of biomedical research is published in legitimate journals, but predatory journals are a growing threat," said Dr. Moher. "Funders, institutions, researchers and publishers need to work together to address this problem and ensure that research is published in a way that advances science and improves health."
Dr. Moher and The Ottawa Hospital have taken the lead with the opening of the Centre for Journalology. This centre, the only one of its kind in the world, includes a full-time publications officer who provides training and consultations to help researchers publish their results in a clear and transparent manner. Dr. Moher and his colleagues have also made progress in identifying predatory journals, proposing solutions and developing guidelines and other resources, and international partnerships.
People like Becky Hollingsworth couldn't be more pleased.
"Participating in research requires a lot of time and trust," she said. "It is good to see that researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are doing everything they can to make sure that their results are making a difference."