Education And Debate

It could fulfil our dreams

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1695
  1. Faith McLellan (mclellan{at}, director, manuscript and grant preparation servicea
  1. a Department of Anesthesiology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX 77555-0830, USA

This holiday season I'm dreaming … of an online scientific paper that is flexible, accessible, and exceptionally friendly for its diverse users. Like most dreams, this one takes no account of cost, technical feasibility, or any of the other headaches of publishers and proprietors. It does acknowledge that authors may already feel overburdened with publication tasks and that readers may be overwhelmed by enormous amounts of information. So despite the virtually limitless terrain of cyberspace, my online paper of the future is still marked by a core IMRAD [introduction, methods, results, and discussion] or other conventional structure, economy of expression, judicious presentation of data, and editorial expertise. Here are a few scenes from this dream:

… a link from the authors' names to their email addresses or other accurate, regularly updated means of contact

… a short summary of the paper's key points, written in plain language. Editors of online journals report heavy traffic from lay readers, so why not make the message accessible to the public?

… links to detailed descriptions of experimental methods

… links to often cited but infrequently available documents, such as the Declaration of Helsinki

… drug, chemical, and equipment names that are linked to a contact for the manufacturer—not to be construed as advertising, but for the convenience of readers in need of the same materials

… links to a schema of the experimental setup, or to a graphic representation of the experimental design

… results that are available on demand in both graphic and tabular form

… statistical methods that are linked to a short description of the tests' mechanics and appropriate uses

… discussion links to speculative ideas—schematics of possible mechanisms, tentative next steps

… references with links to the full text of the cited works

… case reports that might include a short account by patients of their experience of the particular illness, thus providing a perspective that is often missing and another piece of “evidence”

… a didactic “overlay” on selected papers that would examine their content and structure from one of several perspectives, including how to write or review this kind of paper, how to statistically analyse this type of data, or how to use this article in clinical practice—an electronic writing, peer review, or statistical workshop, or journal club

… links, with the consent of all concerned, to reviewers' comments on the published version of the paper

… a mechanism for readers to transmit concise comments that can be edited and linked to the paper.

Specific features of the online scientific paper can be fluid, a synthetic product of the creative expertise of authors, readers, editors, information management specialists, and web site designers. Appropriate to the electronic medium, the paper's form should be lively and open and attentive to the needs of an expanding audience. Appropriate to the scientific method, its design should be tested for usefulness and applicability and then modified as necessary, according to data driven processes. The dream will then culminate in an electronic paper that mirrors some of the highest qualities of science and medicine—rigour, serendipity, compassion.



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