CONSORT Update of Abstract Guidelines 2012
We have previously described the rationale and details of The Consort Statement: Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT). In brief, CONSORT is a checklist, based on evidence, of 25 items that need to be addressed in reports of clinical trials in order to provide readers with a clear picture of study quality and the progress of all participants in the trial, from the time they are randomized until the end of their involvement. The intent is to make the experimental process clear, flawed or not, so that users of the data can more appropriately evaluate its validity and usefulness of the results. A recent BMJ study has assessed the use of CONSORT guidelines for abstracts in five top journals—JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Lancet and the Annals of Internal Medicine. 
In this study, the authors checked each journal’s instructions to authors in January 2010 for any reference to the CONSORT for Abstracts guidelines (for example, reference to a publication or link to the relevant section of the CONSORT website). For those journals that mentioned the guidelines in their instructions to authors, they contacted the editor of that journal to ask when the guidance was added, whether the journal enforced the guidelines, and if so, how. They classified journals in three categories: those not mentioning the CONSORT guidelines in their instructions to authors (JAMA and NEJM); those referring to the guidelines in their instructions to authors, but with no specific policy to implement them (BMJ); and those referring to the guidelines in their instructions to authors, with a policy to implement them (Annals of Internal Medicine and the Lancet).
First surprise—JAMA and NEJM don’t even mention CONSORT in their instructions to authors. Second surprise—CONSORT published what evidologists agree to be reasonable abstract requirements in 2008, but only the Annals and Lancet now instruction authors to follow them. The study design was to evaluate the inclusion of the 9 CONSORT items omitted more than 50% of the time from abstracts (details of the trial design, generation of the allocation sequence, concealment of allocation, details of blinding, number randomized and number analyzed in each group, primary outcome results for each group and its effect size, harms data and funding source). The primary outcome was the mean number of CONSORT items reported in selected abstracts, among nine items reported in fewer than 50% of the abstracts published across the five journals in 2006. Overall, for the primary outcome, publication of the CONSORT guidelines did not lead to a significant increase in the level of the mean number of items reported (increase of 0.3035 of nine items, P=0.16) or the trend (increase of 0.0193 items per month, P=0.21). There was a significant increase in the level of the mean number of items reported after the implementation of the CONSORT guidelines (increase of 0.3882 of five items, P=0.0072) and in trends (increase of 0.0288 items per month, P=0.0025).
What follows is not really surprising—
- After publication of the guidelines in January 2008, the authors identified a significant increase in the reporting of key items in the two journals (Annals of Internal Medicine, and Lancet) that endorsed the guidelines in their instructions to authors and that had an active editorial policy to implement them. At baseline, in January 2006, the mean number of items reported per abstract was 1.52 of nine items, which increased to 2.56 nine items during the 25 months before the intervention. In December 2009, 23 months after the publication of the guidelines, the mean number of items reported per abstract for the primary outcome in the Annals of Internal Medicine and the Lancet was 5.41 items, which represented a 53% increase compared with the expected level estimated on the basis of pre-intervention trends.
- The authors observed no significant difference in the one journal (BMJ) that endorsed the guidelines but did not have an active implementation strategy, and in the two journals (JAMA, NEJM) that did not endorse the guidelines in their instructions to authors.
What this study shows is that without actively implementing editorial policies—i.e., requiring the use of CONSORT guidelines, improved reporting does not happen. A rather surprising finding for us was that only two of the five top journals included in this study have active implementation policies (e.g., an email to authors at time of revision that requires revision of the abstract according to CONSORT guidance). We have a long ways to go.
More details about CONSORT are available, including a few of the flow diagram, at— http://www.consort-statement.org/
2. Hopewell S, Philippe P, Baron G., Boutron I. Effect of editors’ implementation of CONSORT on the reporting of abstracts in high impact medical journals: interrupted time series analysis. BMJ 2012;344:e4178.