What does the future look like for medical publications? Insights from ISMPP EU 2020

Steph Macdonald

The 2020 European Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) opened with a question – in one word, “how do you feel about the future of medical publications?” Answers included “exciting”, “evolving” and “digital”.

Presentations from keynote speakers, David McCandless (Information is beautiful) and futurist Amelia Kallman (The Big Reveal), highlighted how the world as we know it is changing and evolving. The emergence of big data sets enables the conceptualization of healthcare trends, while haptics and holograms can be used when training physicians to ultimately improve patient care. However, despite the advances in medical data and technology, peer-reviewed articles – the major means through which research is communicated – still follow the same format as 350 years ago. But is this still the best and most efficient way to disseminate research?

In 2020, researchers read an average of over 250 articles per year. However, as highlighted by Michael Haessler (Roche) in the ‘Achieving precision communication through novel publication partnerships’ panel discussion, less time than in the past is spent reading and synthesizing the information conveyed in these articles. Researchers and healthcare professionals need quick summaries through faster research communication formats. One way to increase the speed and accessibility of research articles is through publication enhancements, such as podcasts, plain language summaries (PLSs) and video abstracts. At Wiley, video bytes (minute-long video summaries of a full-text article) have been shown to increase the reach and impact of articles, measured by Altmetric Attention and abstract and full-text views. To tackle the current ‘reproducibility crisis’, some publishers have introduced Registered Reports, a type of publication that increases research transparency by facilitating the publication of sound scientific studies, regardless of whether their results yield the desired outcome.

The audience for research outputs is also changing. Demands from the general public for access to research outputs are increasing year on year. As stated by patient advocate Simon Stones, “knowledge should be accessible for everyone”. Some pharma companies, with support from medical communication agencies, are beginning to publish PLSs alongside peer-reviewed manuscripts. It is therefore key that PLSs are both discoverable and available open access. The importance of discoverability was emphasized during the parallel session on plain language summaries of publications: definition, development and dissemination, during which participants debated whether journals and scientific platforms such as PubMed are the best places for housing PLSs and what the best format for a PLS is.

One barrier common to the uptake of all publication enhancements is the current lack of standardization between different journals and publishers. Funders and authors lack the time and money to develop publication enhancements specific to one journal’s criteria, just for the full-text manuscript to be rejected and for the associated infographic, video abstract or PLS to be reformatted to meet an alternative journal’s specifications. As we [the scientific publishing community] begin to adopt new methods of communicating research, protocols must be established to streamline the publication process and ensure ethical compliance. Strengthening the relationship between publishers, authors and funders is key for us to navigate the changing publication ecosystem successfully.

Coming full circle, when asked what their predictions were for the future of medical publications, attendees answered with words such as ‘digital’ and ‘open access’. However, the take-home message from the 2020 European Meeting of ISMPP was ‘change’. With Plan S scheduled to launch in January 2021 and a possible open access mandate in the USA on the horizon, there is a collective need for all publishing stakeholders to work together to facilitate the transparent, discoverable and accessible communication of medical research.