Anita Jain on the Tokyo declaration on research integrity

Raise your hand if:

—“You are an editor of a medical journal?
A sea of hands shot up in the air.

—“The ‘Instructions to Authors’ of your journal indicates the reporting guidelines/ checklists to be complied with?
Less than half stay put.

— “You do not accept a paper unless the checklist appropriate to the study design has been submitted?
Only a handful remained.

I was at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Association of Medical Journal Editors (APAME 2013) in Tokyo where nearly 250 delegates from 22 countries had convened. This small drill in my talk on reporting guidelines from the EQUATOR network reflected the reality at large. While reporting guidelines such as CONSORT, STROBE, STARD, and others have been shown to improve the quality and completeness of research papers, sub-optimal adherence has been a barrier. And a substantial role in this is played by journals. Some have not endorsed these guidelines as yet, and others, despite endorsing the guidelines, are vague in their communications to authors or inconsistent in their requirements for the same. Kiichiro Tsutani, who has been instrumental in promoting the CONSORT statement in Japanese, shared the additional difficulty of keeping up to pace with translations of newer guidelines and revisions to existing ones.

A few editors came up to me after the talk and expressed that this was the first time they had heard about the reporting guidelines, and were genuinely interested in learning more about the EQUATOR network. In my conversations with editors during the convention, I realised that most of them wear multiple hats. They are clinicians, faculty members, researchers, and even politicians in their day job. Being an editor is most often a voluntary pursuit of their passion for science. Some lamented the lack of resources directed towards building capacity among editors in this region. Meetings like APAME are highly valued in that sense, as they help editors get a glimpse of the latest developments in peer review, open access, publication ethics and more, and also exchange notes with others in the same boat.

In the wake of the Novartis scandal in Japan, a dominant theme of the convention was to promote research integrity and ethical publications. This was formalised through the Tokyo Declaration which calls for a renewed commitment to improve the quality and reliability of scientific and medical knowledge in this region. Earlier this year, the Kyoto Heart Study on antihypertensive drug valsartan was retracted following suspected data manipulation and the undisclosed role of the study sponsor Novartis. The Jikei Heart Study, also from Japan, is under scrutiny now. While critics consider reporting guidelines to be a tedious requirement, these checklists may actually help authors, editors, and peer reviewers to verify the completeness of papers, so that critical elements such as the flow of data and the role of the funding sponsor are explained. Deliberate research fraud may be difficult to uproot. However, improved uptake and adherence to reporting guidelines may raise the threshold and prevent ugly episodes that taint the research enterprise. Having met such enthusiastic and driven fellow editors from this region, I am optimistic.

Anita Jain is the India editor, BMJ.