The IJE conference took place in Bristol on 7 October 2016, a one-day, one-off event.
Rodolfo Saracci, as ever bow-tied and in good spirits, did the honours throughout the day. It was under his IEA presidency that Shah Ebrahim and George Davey Smith were hired as IJE editors, and Rodolfo praised their editorial work by likening it to conducting research (“exciting, adventurous, challenging”), and acknowledging that brave decisions have exposed them to the future judgement of historians.
A historical perspective was also taken by Tom Koch, who recalled the very origins of the IJE, of epidemiology itself, and of the transition to modern epidemiology, and by Alex Mold, who told us about the historical relationship between the public and public health by drawing on three key epidemiological narratives (John Snow and the pump’s handle, Richard Doll and the British Doctors’ study, Jerry Morris and London’s bus drivers and conductors).The editors too looked back at the past – Shah Ebrahim telling the intimate rag-to-riches story of how they made it, turning the IJE from a bottom-of-the-league publication to the discipline-topping one that it is now, and George Davey Smith recounting the tale of a forgotten 1930’s pro/anti-eugenics controversy won by virtue of collider bias while conceding that directed acyclic diagrams (DAGs) can serve at least 2 purposes for epidemiologists (!).
Moving on to the present and future, Ben Goldacre catapulted us into the world of open currently inaccessible data, open currently inaccessible code, and open currently highly priced and highly selective publishing, leaving the audience feeling dazed and confused (78 slides in 29 minutes, anyone?!), while Richard Smith advocated for the end of medical publishing (his numbers included 13 reasons of doom, 0 slides and plenty of irony, I think).
Katherine Keyes reminded us of the many ways in which epidemiology matters today, providing both framework and tools (DAGs and others) to interpret estimates as causal, providing policy makers with evidence-based recommendations, and generating scientific knowledge on distribution and determinants of disease. Katherine was the first to mention the internal debate about what constitutes epidemiology, whether it is just causal exposure-outcome questions formulated through counterfactuals, or whether it includes compelling examination of descriptive statistics such as time trends.
And time trends featured prominently in what were probably the two most thought-provoking but equally depressing talks: Martin McKee showed us converging evidence from multiple sources that austerity is toxic to the health of individuals and populations, and Danny Dorling challenged the audience to examine trends that matter, both good news and bad news stories, and not just carrying on with niche research because it makes us feel clever (ouch!).
Throughout the day, good and bad news was dished out in equal measure – Tom Koch’s pandemic prediction and Ben Goldacre’s call for open code elicited similar sinking hearts, which were only worsened by Danny Dorling’s “Do you need a geographer to come to tell you this?” talk. Luckily, Richard Smith’s 13 reasons why medical journals are over meant we could now stop worrying about publishing and impact factors, and Katherine Keyes drew a line under the importance of (teaching introductory) epidemiology.
The conference closed full of expectations –for the new editorial directions to follow in the successful steps of the old, for the field of epidemiology to gain in transparency and passion for the social, and for debates on methods and meaning to live on. No doubt the younger epidemiologists in the audience will also be interested in the developments to the political economy of research funding as the current model heavily weighted in favour of publication numbers and journals’ IFs could finally be due to change.
In summary, it was a stimulating meeting, a showcase of historical reveals (Shah’s chest hair, George’s Joy Division-esque look), the coming together of personalities and perspectives which inevitably left the audience with more questions than answers. Will the IJE’s new editorial board finally realise the open data ambition that George talked about but never enforced? Will they go beyond it and insist on researchers sharing their code too? Incentive could come in the form of reduced editorial burden, as predicted by a pre-IJE editor George Davey Smith: “The fall in submissions to a journal brave enough to implement this policy would be a useful indicator of its success”.
Luisa Zuccolo is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol.
Video recordings of the conference presentations are available below: