Researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto have published a meta-research paper where they state the worrying decline in the number of basic research articles in peer-reviewed specialty medical journals in the last 20 years. The decrease is expected to affect physicians’ interest in and understanding of molecular mechanisms that explain diseases and allow finding treatments.
Basic research focuses on cell and molecular biology and aims to understand the subjacent causes of diseases. By contrast, clinical research is based on human trials and statistical studies of clinical data. Dr. Lee and his team analyzed the articles of several medical specialties appearing on PubMed, a database with 25 million citations for biomedical literature sourced mainly from life science journals. Two of the eight highest-ranked journals, Diabetes Care and the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, didn’t reflect any change in tendency, whereas the remaining six experienced a 40-60% drop in basic reseach articles. Other three non-clinical journals analyzed (Journal of Biological Chemistry, the Journal of Clinical Investigation and Cell) didn’t show that decline.
Need for impact factor
Although the causes for this drop are unclear, Dr. Lee argues that the pressure to publish and obtain a high-citation index could be one of the explanations. Clinical research is often much more cited that basic research, making the former more attractive for researchers who want to publish in high impact factor journals. This trend is detrimental for the visibility and prestige of basic research: young medical residents and clinicians might not be exposed to it and could underestimate its importance. The recent advances in personalized medicine, where every patient gets a treatment tailored to its specific needs, is totally derived from the understanding and analysis of the patient’s disease at a molecular level. A change in the science publishing industry and research institutes evaluation procedures is necessary to revert this sorry state of affairs.