“These most brisk and giddy-paced times.”
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
The pace of recent world events stands in stark contrast to the stately (some might say glacial) progress of epidemiologic research. This contrast is not without its tensions. On one hand, most epidemiologists don’t want to be mistaken for ivory-tower types. We are pragmatists, seizing opportunities as they present themselves, and sometimes (as with the emergence of bioterrorism) working in the thick of a rapidly changing scene. Still, the truth is that most of us conduct our work with benchmarks of months and years, not hours and days.
The same must be said of Epidemiology. While the editors acknowledge the brisk pace of these times, we also recognize the journal’s duty to do what it does best – which, by necessity, involves a longer perspective.
In this spirit, I offer some reflections on the state of the journal in May 2002 – one year since the first issue under the current editors. I’ll begin with an accounting of our daily work – the reading and prioritizing and editing of manuscripts. Then I’ll comment on the evolution of the journal itself, and on what lies ahead.
Epidemiology published 102 research papers and 39 letters in 2001, plus assorted editorials and commentaries. Most of these came from the 360 submissions received in 2000. Nearly half of our submissions come from outside the United States and United Kingdom – a healthy sign of the expansion of our profession. In 2001, our submissions rose more than 20%, to 443. The good news (for our readers) is that this bounty has provided the editors with a larger number of interesting papers from which to choose. The bad news (for our authors) is that with a fixed number of published pages, we must reject an increasing proportion.
A word about rejections. In working through more than four hundred decisions a year, the editors make some mistakes. We try at least to make our mistakes respectfully. We also try to act briskly – especially when the news will be disappointing. We send an e-mail note to about 30% of our authors within a few days of their paper’s arrival, telling them their paper does not seem to be a good fit with our journal. If such cuts are not exactly kind, they are quick.
Papers that enter the review process take longer. For this we rely on a trusted pool of experts from a range of disciplines. Our median time to first decision for reviewed manuscripts is nine weeks. We hope that the Web-based management of manuscripts via Rapid Review© will eventually trim this response time. Regardless of the process, our goal is to make all our first decisions within three months. (We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.) The time from a paper’s final acceptance to its publication is currently running about six months.
One of the great strengths of the journal has been the team of distinguished experts who have served on our Editorial Board. Many have served since the journal’s first issue in 1990. We would keep them all, but we know new blood invigorates journals just as it does other enterprises. We are beginning a policy of four-year appointments to the board, which will mean rotating about a quarter of our members each year. We extend our deepest appreciation to charter members Anders Ahlbom, Rodolfo Saracci, Michael Thun, and Sally Zierler (all having served since 1990), and to Mati Rahu (1992), Steven Coughlin (1995), and Tony McMichael (1996), as they rotate off the Board. The editors warmly welcome Pierre Buekens, Charlie Poole, Art Reingold, and Sholom Wacholder, who have accepted new appointments to the Board. We’ll be announcing more appointments in the months ahead.
On the subject of change, you may have noticed that the journal is now using structured abstracts. We won’t require structured abstracts for all papers (such as certain kinds of methods papers). However, we believe that structure helps to make abstracts clearer and more easily grasped. This becomes doubly important with the wide circulation of abstracts through PubMed.
Another change is our expanded use of Brief Reports. In the past, a Brief Report has mostly meant “short.” We would like to encourage a more daring use of this form. We’re willing to take more risks with short papers, and we encourage our authors to do the same. This is a good place for presentation of a provocative finding that warrants replication, or a creative hypothesis that deserves testing. Authors who can package an unexpected finding or clever hunch into fewer than 1500 words will increase their chances at Epidemiology.
Managing the day-to-day flow of manuscripts is satisfying, but it is not what gives this job its zest. The adventure is in finding ways in which the journal might affect the field – not merely reflect it. You will be seeing some new features in the coming year. One will tap the experiences of our most senior colleagues, and another will provide practical translations of new methods. As we experiment with new forms and new content, we trust (as always) that you will let us know what works – and what does not.
The journal may not be fast moving. But we promise you that it won’t stand still.