Context To determine whether the views expressed in a research paper are accurate
representations of contributors' opinions about the research being reported.
Methods Purposive sampling of 10 research articles published in The Lancet; qualitative analysis of answers to 6 questions about the
meaning of the study put to contributors who were listed on the byline of
these articles. Fifty-four contributors listed on the bylines of the 10 articles
were evaluated, and answers to questions were compared between contributors
within research groups and against the published research report.
Results A total of 36 (67%) of 54 contributors replied to this survey. Important
weaknesses were often admitted on direct questioning but were not included
in the published article. Contributors frequently disagreed about the importance
of their findings, implications, and directions for future research. I could
find no effort to study systematically past evidence relating to the investigators'
own findings in either survey responses or the published article. Overall,
the diversity of contributor opinion was commonly excluded from the published
report. I found that discussion sections were haphazardly organized and did
not deal systematically with important questions about the study.
Conclusions A research paper rarely represents the opinions of those scientists
whose work it reports. The findings described herein reveal evidence of (self-)censored
criticism, obscured meanings, confused assessment of implications, and failures
to indicate directions for future research. There is now empirical support
for the introduction of structured discussion sections in research papers.
Editors might also explore ways to recover the plurality of contributors'