[A] Chicago, Illinois, meeting [in 1989] marked the birth of what is now sometimes called journalology, a term coined by Stephen Lock, a former editor of The British Medical Journal (The BMJ). Its goal: improving the quality of at least a slice of the scientific record, in part by creating an evidence-based protocol for the path from the design of a study to its publication. That medical journals took a leading role isn’t surprising. A sloppy paper on quantum dots has never killed anyone, but a clinical trial on a new cancer drug can mean the difference between life and death.
The field has grown steadily and has spurred important changes in publication practices. Today, for example, authors register a clinical trial in advance if they want it considered for publication in a major medical journal, so it doesn’t vanish if the results aren’t as hoped. And authors and journal editors often pledge to include in their papers details important for assessing and replicating a study. But almost 30 years on, plenty of questions remain, says clinical epidemiologist David Moher of The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, a self-described journalologist. Moher—who once thought his dyslexia explained why he couldn’t understand so much published research—wants to know whether the reporting standards that journals now embrace actually make papers better, for instance, and whether training for peer reviewers and editors is effective.
Finding the answers isn’t easy. Journalology still hovers on the edge of respectable science, in part because it’s often competing with medicine for dollars and attention. Journals are also tough to study and sometimes secretive, and old habits die hard. “It’s hard,” Moher says, “to be a disruptor in this area.”