Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner has, sadly given lists a bad name. Rather than tools of revenge, lists in healthcare, however, have the power to do much good. Atul Gawande’s book on lists has explained why they should be core to medical practice. I’d argue that in medical publishing too they are critical.
When Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the UK’s Royal Society, wrote the Spring of the Air he was probably the first to write in such a way that allowed other men (it was only men then of course) to repeat and test his findings. In this way he was in turn one of the first to legitimize research by making it reproducible.
More than 300 years later we have a fully reproducible literature with everything fully reported, right? Wrong. There is a current crisis of confidence in research, with increasing and appropriate concern that many results, especially the most dramatic, often cannot be trusted. Contributing fundamentally (but not exclusively, obviously) to this problem is that whole swathes of the medical and scientific literature are not described in sufficient detail that anyone else can even test. In medicine this crisis literally is life threatening; patients given treatments as a result of inadequately described studies may at best be treated sub-optimally, at worst harmed or killed.
However, in one important corner of the research endeavor a group of individuals, have, for many years now, been making a determined effort to change this poor reporting and PLOS Medicine is proud to have played its part in it. The CONSORT reporting guidelines for clinical trials and the PRISMA guidelines for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses are, I’d argue two of the most important papers the journal has ever published. The premise behind both of these documents, and the checklists in them and the many other guidelines that we and other PLOS journals have published is very simple: tell us what you did so others can test it.