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British journal blogs fire cross-Atlantic salvoes at JAMA, NEJM

Two weeks ago, former BMJ editor Richard Smith blogged, “Is the New England Journal of Medicine anti-science?” Excerpts:

“I don’t know why the New England Journal of Medicine doesn’t publish electronically all the letters it receives, but I can hypothesise. The Bostonian paragon is unashamedly elitist and committed to excellence and virtue, just like their colleagues in the city teased by Henry James in his novel The Bostonians. Presumably the editors of the journal don’t want to overload their readers with what they see as ill informed criticisms, but want to present them with the quintessence of comment, beautifully edited of course.

But surely this behaviour is anti-science.

The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine must think of themselves as superior people (and they are superior to most of us, and certainly to me) capable of distinguishing truth from error, but could they be making a mistake? I urge them to follow the advice of Rudolf  Virchow, the great German doctor and intellectual, who insisted that “Everybody is free to make a fool of himself in my journal.”

This week, different BMJ blog, different author, different American journal targeted.  Richard Lehman, in his weekly journal review blog, writes:

“Fifteen years ago, JAMA was my favourite journal. Its covers were always beautiful, thanks to M Therese Southgate’s choice of paintings and works of art, and her short essays on each were unpretentious and delightful. The contents then were more clinically relevant than those of the Lancet or NEJM. Subsequently the journal went into gradual decline, which some hoped might be arrested by the arrival of Howard Bauchner as editor two years ago. But this week marks a low point. Howie B has got rid of the art. He has made all the other JAMA journals uniform and subservient to his, which is not the best of them. He has done away with independent statistical analysis for industry-funded research. Fifteen years later, JAMA is by no means my favourite journal, and it seems determined to press on in the wrong direction.”

Then he ends with a compliment:

 “Still, it has the best piece in all the journals this week, which is an editorial by Harlan Krumholz on variation in healthcare—a trumpet call to wake up and start sharing decisions with patients. Just do as this guy says and healthcare will be sorted for the rest of the century.”

As a journalist who tries to improve health care journalism by offering constructive criticism to journalists, I think this is great fun observing journal jousting – even though, to be clear, these are journal bloggers offering the criticisms, not journal editors (although, as noted, Richard Smith is a former BMJ editor.) I think it’s healthy.  Editors need editors, too.

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