ICMJE Revisions Address Conflicts and Impact Factors

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” guide best practice and ethical standards regarding articles published in medical journals. The recommendations address authorship, conflicts of interest, author and journal responsibilities, a variety of ethical issues, manuscript preparation, and other topics.

The ICMJE recommendations are the go-to document for questions—both thorny and mundane—in medical journal editorial offices. The Ochsner Journal follows the ICMJE recommendations and has referred authors to the document in the past to answer questions about who should be listed as an author, what constitutes copyright, and what conflicts must be disclosed.

So when the ICMJE revises the recommendations, we pay attention.

The recommendations were revised in December 2018, and we consider two of the updates to be noteworthy changes: one regarding conflicts of interest and one regarding the Clarivate Analytics (formerly Thomson Reuters) Journal Impact Factor.

The section formerly titled “Author Responsibilities” has been retitled “Conflicts of Interest,” and the ICMJE has upped the ante on self-reporting, now explicitly stating, “Purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest is a form of misconduct as is discussed in section III.B [Scientific Misconduct, Expressions of Concern, and Retraction].

Prior to the December 2018 update, the ICMJE recommendations defined conflicts, provided examples of conflicts, and recommended that authors “avoid entering in to agreements with study sponsors” but did not label nondisclosure as misconduct.

This change comes hard on the heels of the September 2018 investigative report by The New York Times and ProPublica revealing that drug and healthcare companies paid millions of dollars to the chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering, but he did not disclose those ties more than 100 times in medical journals.

The second change is an entirely new section added under the section devoted to the responsibilities of journals in the submission and peer review process. The new section is called “Journal Metrics,”and here’s what it says:

“The journal impact factor is widely misused as a proxy for research and journal quality and as a measure of the importance of specific research projects or the merits of individual researchers, including their suitability for hiring, promotion, tenure, prizes, or research funding. ICMJE recommends that journals reduce the emphasis on impact factor as a single measure, but rather provide a range of article and journal metrics relevant to their readers and authors.”

Now, just to be clear, the ICMJE is not controlled by the editors of small, sour-grapes journals that wish they had an impressive impact factor. Membership in the ICMJE is global, but the names that will jump out immediately to English-language readers are these: Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, PLOS Medicine, The Lancet, and the US National Library of Medicine.

We’ve been saying for some time that the overreliance on impact factor as a measure of value is wrong. It’s nice to be backed up by such impressive company.

This annotated copy of the updated guidelines lets you see immediately where changes have been made.