Behrooz Astaneh: Towards professionalism at small medical journals

Behrooz AstanehIn the Eastern Mediterranean/Middle East, where I live, most medical journals are small ones.  To help train the editors of some of these journals Shiraz University of Medical Sciences founded in September 2009 an academic Master of Science course in medical journalism. The course was first announced at the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) annual seminar in March 2009 in London (

Students for this master’s course are selected from applicants who already have a previous degree in medicine or a paramedical area, and who have passed a national examination held every year in June by the Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education.

The course modules include epidemiology, biostatistics, online production, magazine production, advanced English (general and medical), medical news and feature writing, computer skills, media law, journalism, scientific and copy editing, and journal design and layout. The first group of students have already passed their first year of studying. The second set of selected students comprised a colorectal surgeon, an otolaryngologist, a general practitioner, and an entomologist.

We hope that this masters’ course will prove valuable to journals in our region and even beyond. Editors of many small journals worldwide share a range of challenges, as reflected repeatedly in discussions on the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) listserve.

Small academic journals usually have low circulations, lack dynamic and active websites, and appear no more often than quarterly: hence they have low visibility and small audiences.  Many have questionable editorial independence. They are sponsored by medical universities or other academic institutions of which the editors are faculty members. Such editors are usually part-time, managing the journal in their free time. The success or failure of the journal does not normally affect their academic career. Nor can it usually affect their income. But they depend on their employer organisations for academic promotion and this, too can affect their editorial independence.

Training for editors at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences covers advanced English. We hope this will, in turn, help authors to tackle the language barrier and reduce the temptation to plagiarize some parts of their articles from articles written by native English-speaking authors. Similarly, editorial training in publication ethics and the problems of research misconduct should help editors to detect and prevent ethical misbehaviours more easily, often using specialist software.

In many of these journals, authors can simply contact the chief editors if they have a question or want to submit manuscripts, rather than using a proper editorial submission system. Encouraging and training editors in introducing professional manuscript systems should make the job easier for peer reviewers, and preliminary screening and rejection of unsuitable manuscripts by editors should decrease the pressure on journal budgets.

Also, editors mostly rely on their editorial boards to make decisions.  Board members are usually specialists in various fields of health and medicine with no direct training in editing and journalism. Consequently they rely solely on peer reviewers’ comments to reach decisions. Many large journals use manuscript committees or boards with trained, professional editors who consider reviewers’ reports but decide which articles to publish, and this model may also raise the quality and ethics of decision making at smaller journals.  

Behrooz Astaneh MD, is founder and course leader of the Master of Science course in medical journalism, and a a BMJ visiting editor