Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Evidence that medical writers improve papers

It is widely believed in the medical writing community that professional medical writers write better papers than people who are not professional medical writers.

It seems a logical proposition, doesn't it? After all, it's generally accepted that brain surgeons are better at doing brain surgery than people who are not brain surgeons, that airline pilots are better at flying planes than people who are not airline pilots, and that bankers are better at running banks than people who are not bankers (OK, maybe that last example wasn't such a good one, but you get the idea).

The trouble is, there is almost no evidence that it is true.

Now, I'm not saying that it isn't true. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and all that. The fact is that it is extraordinarily difficult to do research on whether papers written by professional medical writers are better than other papers.

For a start, what do you mean by "better", and how do you measure it? That's not a trivial question. And then we have the problem of identifying papers written by professional medical writers. That's getting easier these days now that the medical writing community is becoming more aware of the need for clear acknowledgement of medical writers' involvement in published papers, but some papers are still "ghostwritten" (ie written by a medical writer, but with no acknowledgement or any other way for the reader to know about the medical writer).

The only study I'm aware of before now that really looked at the question was a study by Karen Woolley and colleagues, which found shorter times from submission to acceptance in papers written by professional medical writers, although their results just failed to reach statistical significance.

So I'm pleased to report that I have managed to do a study of whether medical writers improve the quality of papers, and that I found that they do. The paper has just been published in EMWA's journal The Write Stuff, and you can download a copy here.

Now, before you get all excited, I should point out that there are a number of limitations. This was not the most high-quality piece of research in the world ever, and the findings need to be interpreted with those limitations in mind. I have discussed them at length in the paper.

Also, the improvement in quality was very small. I measured "quality" (OK, one particular dimension of the very complex multifactorial concept of quality) by the extent to which the papers complied with the CONSORT guideline, and found that papers written by medical writers complied with only 0.75 of an extra item (out of a 22-item checklist), on average, compared with other papers. The difference was statistically significant, but undeniably small.

Despite those caveats, I'm rather pleased with this research. It may not be a brilliant piece of research, but to my knowledge it is the first time that anyone has shown empirically that papers written by professional medical writers are statistically significantly better than those that aren't. You have to start somewhere.

We're currently working on a larger study, which I hope will be free of some of the limitations of the study described above. Watch this space.

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