"It is as useless to advise a man not to start a new journal as it is to advise him not to commit suicide (John Shaw Billings, 1879)
Medical journals have had a dominant influence on both professional and scientific growth of medicine as a discipline. They have also assisted linkages between the medical community and other stake holders in health care.
Medical journals first appeared as specialized publications in the late eighteenth century. Earlier, publication of books was the means of popularization for proponents of new ideas and for opponents of contemporary theories. In later years, a common method of communication among scientists was presentation of their new findings at scientific conferences. Proceedings of conferences were then printed and distributed.
The first scientific journals were the French Journal des Scavans and the British Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which began in the 17th century. General medical journals were first published towards the end of the 18th century. The first medical journal in Britain was Medical Essays and Observations, published in 1731 by the Society of Physicians in Edinburgh. The Medical Repository first published in 1797 was the earliest medical journal to be published from the United States. Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta published in 1825 was the oldest medical journal from India. Many of the early journals were sectarian, regional or institution based and had limited circulation with only hundreds of subscribers. They were also forums mainly for popularizing distinct views on medical practice or health care policies. The journals were either initiated by medical societies, medical schools, publishing houses or enterprising individual physicians. The motivation of the founders was possibly the desire to promote medical literacy and contribute to the advance of medical profession through spread of new ideas and knowledge. Some of the editors of those times were crusaders of change or reformists. The best known among them is Thomas Wakely, the founding editor of the Lancet. The Lancet was a radical journal and the name implied "incising the abscess on the medical body politic (Spriggs SS 1899)
Medical journals of all hues, general, popular, specialist and scientific have had a rapid increase in numbers in the nineteenth century. They helped to spread new ideas on diagnostic methods and treatment strategies; they also assisted debates on medical education and health system reforms. The journals evolved to exceedingly influence and energize professional metamorphosis in the practice of medicine. An analysis of the birth and death statistics of medical journals of the nineteenth century however reveals a high mortality rate among the journals. Intense competition for a limited readership and high printing costs were not the only reasons for the high mortality; many physicians after medical schooling did not read medical literature.
Be that as it may, health-related journals continued to multiply after the Second World War. The growth during this period received momentum with the initiation of electronic journals. The major language for medical publications switched to English from Latin and German which were the lingua franca in the earlier centuries. Specialty journals were first published at the beginning of the 20th century and subspecialty journals arrived in the later years of that century. These journals helped immensely to the advancement of many of the medical and surgical specialties.
The journals of nineteenth century had several shortcomings which included lack of scientific objectivity. Medical journals, though basic scientists might complain that they contain poor science, have over the years become more rigorous in their selection of articles with emphasis on scientific objectivity. What has helped in improving the scientific quality of medical journals is the process of peer review, which was institutionalized some time after World War II. Peer reviewing process provided a means to manage the large number of submissions for publication and consequent competition for space in journals as well as establishing standards for journal publication. Outside consultations also helped editors who lacked specialized knowledge to make decisions about highly technical articles received by them. The referee system also guarded against rejection of an article because of an editor's prejudice against an author or because of a specific opinion expressed in a manuscript. Currently, editors consider peer reviewing invaluable, though it is largely ineffective to identify fraud and may also be prone to reviewer's bias.
Editors of medical journals face several challenges. Important among them is to make their journal useful to the medical community, providing answers to the questions the practitioners face in managing patients. Other demands are managing conflicts of interest arising from the relationship of the authors with pharamaceutical companies and eschewing misconduct in the form of plagiarism or publishing the same study more than once. Medical journals are also expected to have higher values than science journals or popular magazines. They are expected to desist from publishing any study, which has not been properly evaluated in clinical practice. Publications in medical journals should also not give unwanted hope to patients or scare the public.
Despite all the demands, I am excited to accept the stewardship of Health Sciences. The journal has an editorial board comprising highly competent members and I look forward to working with them. The focus of this journal is holistic health, and we aim to notify progress in a physician's armamentarium. It is our goal that this journal offers a forum for effective communications among practitioners of different systems of medicine, basic scientists, technologists and social scientists. All being well, the emerging synergy will accelerate the pursuit of improving patient care. This aim of the journal is in consonance with the vision and mission of Kerala University of Health Sciences. Hopefully, readers would accept our approach and will find Health Sciences useful to appreciate novel ways of integrating best practices in different systems of medicine.
Aren't there too many journals already and what would be the fate of Health Sciences?
We would certainly strive to have journal suit the needs and interests of the medical fraternity assuring unrestricted access and wide reach.