Has essential research reading become skippable busy work?

Here’s a twist on that old philosophical mind game about a tree falling in a forest when no one’s around to hear it. If a medical journal gets published and no one bothers to read it, does it do anything meaningful for medicine?

The Texas cardiologist Milton Packer, MD, recently wondered about that in a blog post. Packer posits that today’s physicians don’t keep up with the medical literature. The evidence he offers in support of his observation is anecdotal but compelling. And troubling.

Nearly 200 young physicians attending a meeting told him by show of hands—or, rather, by a complete lack thereof—that they don’t read any of the medical journals to which they’re subscribed.

Whether they’re on these journals’ mail lists intentionally or involuntarily doesn’t matter. What matters is that the young docs do indeed receive them—mostly digitally, although some likely in print too—but don’t even page through. They might glance at the email notification saying a new issue is out, but they don’t browse the table of contents. They don’t skim the abstracts. Each issue may as well be dropping deep into unpeopled woods.

Nor is the willful turning away confined to young doctors. At a national meeting, Packer asked more than 40 of his peers in heart care, including many recognized thought leaders in that field, whether they’d read a clinically consequential study he’d blogged about. In fact, he only asked because most had approached him to talk about that very post. Evidently they had strong feelings about whatever it was that he’d written.  

Despite their intense interest in the post, most admitted they hadn’t read the study itself. And of the two who claimed they had, neither could name its main findings.

“Top-tier medical research is really hard, but in the past, the effort was worth it if you could have an impact on thinking or on clinical practice,” Packer writes. “But if it turns out that authors are just participating in a tiny self-contained community whose members simply talk and listen only to each other, then what is the point?”

Radiology isn’t cardiology. But Packer isn’t addressing only his specialty. He’s talking about largely unread peer-reviewed medical literature across the board.

Radiology is served by some truly great journals, starting with JACR, Radiology and the American Journal of Roentgenology. These publications’ editors do a wonderful job making sure their content is accessible. Much of it is downright enjoyable, even to a layperson like me.

How about you, RBJ reader? Do you regularly read one or more medical or professional journals?

Please email me with a Yes or No to that question in the subject line. I’ll anonymize the responses and, next time around in this space, report the results.

Dave Pearson, Editor