The BMJ Today: Boring can be beautiful

sally_carterMary E Black’s blog on making data beautiful caught my eye this morning. As a technical editor at The BMJ I see a lot of tables, graphs, plots, and charts. I don’t want to put my job at risk, but I’ve got to agree with Mary when she writes that many of these representations of data are boring.

In her blog, she gives us her “top 10 inspirations for glorious data displays.” A world of books, talks, blogs, websites, and hackathons and jams opens up. As Mary writes, “Given that data, and in particular big data, is inevitable, exciting, inspiring, unlocks potential, has fabulous hidden patterns, is a game changer, is a huge business opportunity, can mobilise resources, can change our organisations and our lives forever . . . why does it have to be so BORING?”

And with the importance of data in mind, The BMJ has just published three research papers.

Ingrid A Binswanger and colleagues provide a population based retrospective analysis of tobacco control policies and deaths from smoking in US prisons. A systematic review and meta-analysis by A Roy and colleagues looks at the effect of BCG vaccination against Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection in children, and Stephen Morris and colleagues have done a difference-in-differences analysis to investigate the impact of centralising acute stroke services in English metropolitan areas on mortality and length of hospital stay.

However the data are represented in these papers, they have the potential to affect lots of people, which makes them far from boring.

Finally, a couple of articles shocked and moved me. Sanjeet Bagcchi writes about a United Nations report that has shown how the child sex ratio in India has reached crisis point. The sex ratio among children fell from 976 girls for every 1000 boys in 1961, to 927 in 2001, and to 918 in 2011.

Lavanya Malhotra’s blog on “India’s lost girls and doctors’ complicity” brings this stark fact to life. She gives a good overview of how this trend in the sex ratio continues and provides examples of how the statistics translate to life. These examples include the code some doctors use to tell families whether a fetus is male or female, and the story of a Delhi based doctor recounting “how she was harangued by her orthopaedic surgeon husband and parents in law to abort her twin girls after 20 weeks of conceiving.”

I realise that the skewed sex ratio is not a new thing. Last year I remember reading an editorial by our India editor, Anita Jain, on sex selection and abortion in India, but I still find the subject shocking.

Sally Carter is a technical editor at The BMJ.