Physicians and researchers have different needs

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Alex Williamson is publishing director at the BMJ Group, the publishing arm of the British Medical Association (BMA). We ask her about the role of journals in clinical medicine.

What journals do you publish?

Our flagship title, the BMJ, is a weekly journal, which goes out in print to all BMA members and other subscribers. The print readership is mainly UK-based but our website is much more international and has three million hits per month (only one third of which are UK). The online version offers more than the print version because it includes longer articles, data supplements and discussion threads.

You need a subscription to access all the current material except for the original research articles, which are free to access immediately. After 12 months everything is free to access. Our 24 specialist journals are mainly monthly publications. They have access controls on all online content but this content is also free after 12 months.

All of our journals are aimed at clinicians although some, in areas such as public health, are multidisciplinary. The role of medical literature is to keep clinicians up-to-date with the latest research in their field and to educate them. In addition to original research, BMJ contains news, reviews and analysis articles. Around 50 per cent of the content of our specialist journals is also this type of value-added material.

Researchers and clinicians use journals differently. A molecular biologist might find two or three articles of interest within a molecular biology journal issue so they are more likely to find the relevant articles by searching online. Doctors are more likely to leaf through a print edition and find more things of general interest. We know, from looking at our usage statistics, that the value-added material is the most popular in our titles. In clinical journals you tread a fine line between high impact and low usage.

Do clinicians want open access?

There is a tendency to generalise with open access. We tend to be lumped into the category of biomedical research but doctors don’t treat rats. Biomedical research tends to be too far removed from the day-to-day activities in a hospital to be of practical interest to many practicing clinicians.

What’s more, clinical journals aren’t quite like pure science research publications, where the readers and authors are the same group of people. Journals like ours do appeal to researchers but, in the main, they are read by practicing clinicians, many of whom will never write a journal paper. And, if they do, they are often simply writing up work that they think will interest colleagues, without receiving any funding to do so.

We have a hybrid open-access model, which started in September last year. Uptake has been around two per cent of authors. I would be surprised if we moved to the open-access model. I think we’ll stay with the hybrid model. All our material is free after 12 months anyway.

How important is old information?

Our usage graphs peak with the current issues of our journals but have very long tails, and usage of old material adds up to more than current usage overall. At the moment the BMJ goes back to 1992 and our other titles go back to 1998 online. Our archives are all offered for free as a service to medicine.

By the end of this year we intend all our specialist titles to be available online back to Volume 1, Issue 1. Next year we hope to release the whole of the BMJ back archive. It is a big challenge to digitise as far back as 1840, particularly as it has been a weekly publication for most of its life and the early issues are very fragile now. We are working with the US National Library of Medicine on this project and the back archive will be available on PubMedCentral and on our journal websites with HighWire Press.

What does the future hold?

Five years ago I would have predicted that print would go, but now I don’t think that’s the case. From an economic point of view it would be better for us to lose the print version as we wouldn’t have to print and despatch issues to subscribers. However, our readership surveys tell us that individuals like print. There is still that serendipity feeling of spotting something interesting as they leaf through the print version. When they need to find specific information, however, they tend to use the website.

We have done experiments into putting journal information on PDAs but not had much take-up. Even the abstracts of papers are too long to display well on PDAs. This is more appropriate for databases such as Clinical Evidence [another BMJ Group product], where we can present nuggets of information.

Interview by Siân Harris