Promoting the Quality of Open Research
The importance of reporting guidelines and transparent reporting
Transparency in research comes in many forms. Disclosures of funding or conflicts of interest, pre-registration of analysis plans and protocols, and open source datasets and codes are all important steps to reducing research waste and promoting open science. Efforts are being made in all of these domains but at the end of the day the looming question is – is the work clear and open about what it plans to do or what has been done?
Anyone who has read a biomedical research article has experienced the confusion and endless questions that accompany the evaluation of a research article. When authors writing the results of their studies are not clear about what they did, it is hard for readers, like doctors and patients, to judge the quality of the work and to integrate the information into patient care and health policies. Inadequate information creates doubts regarding generalizability and credibility that leaves readers with more questions than answers. With such uncertainty, studies have to be excluded from systematic reviews and meta-analyses and we have to keep asking the same questions again and again. This incomplete reporting in research contributes to a “reproducibility crisis” where scientific progress is impeded due to an inability to replicate results and to accurately interpret findings.
Open science does not matter if the science available is of poor quality. Despite overcoming the access barrier, the quality barrier remains. We need a better focus on the writing process and how to better report the results of studies. There are resources available to authors, in the form of reporting guidelines, that detail specific items that should be reported for certain fields, study designs, and methods. However, the awareness and use of these reporting guidelines is low. A key factor to increasing the quality of work being published is having all parties involved recognize that there is an issue and that there are some ways to help address it.
These reporting guidelines can be implemented at multiple stages of the research process and offer structure in the form of checklists and flow diagrams. Authors are perhaps the most important factor as they are the ones that know their study plans and results best. However, they cannot operate alone as colleagues, funders, and journals need to recognize and promote the importance of reporting guidelines.
From the beginning of the research process there are tools available to ensure that information is properly reported. For example, there are guidelines for protocols like Standard Protocol Items: Recommendations for Interventional Trials (SPIRIT) for randomized control trials or Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA-P) for systematic reviews. Funders can use these checklists as guidelines for judging if a study is well conceived and has a plan to deal with common issues like biases, sample size justifications, and statistical analysis plans.
After a study is complete, authors generally submit the results as manuscripts to journals. These journals can do their part by requiring authors to submit completed guidelines with their manuscripts or requiring peer reviewers to use checklists in the review process. There are multiple methods for promoting the use of reporting guidelines. Groups like the Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research (EQUATOR) Network recognize this complexity and encourage use by offering workshops, engaging with editors, and promoting easy access to resources by allowing authors to search for relevant checklists.
Open access to research is important for reducing socioeconomic barriers to research and to promote access to information that affects people’s lives. In order to ensure that the research available is able to be used most effectively, we should promote the use or reporting guidelines in the planning, writing, and reviewing processes of research. Reporting guidelines promote transparent reporting and have the potential to reduce waste in research. With clearer information available, time, money and most importantly lives can be saved.