off record
Shaukat Ali Jawaid

How to define
original research &
original articles?

Editors of Health Science journals are often faced with a dilemma while categorizing different types of manuscripts before publication and it also depends on the criteria used by the regulatory bodies in different countries for giving credit to the authors. In some countries, the regulatory bodies only give credit to the authors if it is published under the category of Original article though some editors feel and practice of putting some manuscripts under the title of original research.

More recently in the last week of December 2020, there was an interesting discussion on the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) List serve on this topic in which many distinguished editors participated to share their views. According to Prof. Jose Florencio Lapena Jr former President of Asia Pacific Association of Medical Editors (APAME) “primary research articles generate new knowledge from observation or experimentation by the author, and are therefore called original articles. Original articles range from the most basic single case report to the most sophisticated randomized controlled trial and may be named according to a specific research design or generally termed original article. 

The important criterion for primary or original-research articles is the communication of knowledge arrived at or discovered by the author(s). They include theoretical articles, which present new or established abstract principles (e.g. mathematical modeling of biological and physiological processes), as well as observational and experimental research. Primary articles may be in the form of a short report, focusing on a single case, or in the form of a case series, presenting a series of cases encountered over a limited period of time. They may report on clinical procedures, diagnostic, or therapeutic. Technical reports, including the evaluation of equipment, instrumentation, and technology, belong in this category. Original theses and dissertations are also counted among primary-research articles.

Secondary or review articles expand on knowledge that has been previously communicated by others. That includes revisiting, reviewing, analyzing, or synthesizing existing research, and presenting it in a new light. Secondary articles might come in the form of a monograph (a detailed study of a single subject or aspect of a subject), a descriptive review, or commentary. So yes, a case report may rightfully be classified as original or primary (rather than a secondary or review) work.”

Mary Ellen Kerans, Barcelona opined that “a systematic review (SR) is indeed a special kind of “original article” because there is an explicit research question and a stated method for answering it. Reflecting this, SRs are reported in IMRD (introduction, method...) format. When SRs include meta-analysis, their classification as “originals” is particularly clear.” She was referring to article classification, though, not “originality” broadly speaking. Any article type (editorials, narrative reviews, case reports [in the discussion section], letters) can involve “originality” broadly speaking in the form of well-argued, even brilliant, insights and writing. But that’s another story.”

Andrew Burd from Hong Kong referred to “an excellent overview on this topic written by Jose Florencio Lapena and Wilfred C G Pey ( Lapea, J. F. F., & Peh, W. C. (2019). Chapter 37. Various Types of Scientific Articles. A Guide to the Scientific Career: Virtues, Communication, Research and Academic Writing, 351-355.) It is available in the Wiley Online library.

Dr. Farrokh Habibzadeh former President of WAME participating in the discussion pointed out “different definitions for the word “original.” He agreed that “original” refers to firsthand primary research results. These original findings can be presented/published in various forms from a letter to the editor, a case report, a hypothesis, an original article, a systematic review (and in his view it should be categorized as an original article), etc. But, a question mostly important for promotion purposes in academia or for editors looking for appropriate classification of a paper in their journal is that if a paper presenting an original material should be a case report, a hypothesis, an original article, etc. I still believe that only those articles presenting a repeatable reproducible falsifiable hypothesis or a repeatable reproducible research question should be labelled as “original article,” although other types of the article would contain original results. In this way, a systematic review should be considered a type of original article, while a narrative review should not. I’d like to note that a narrative review, although might be considered a secondary publication, contains original material too? The way the findings of other articles are selected and presented is unique to each author and how he or she sees the field he or she is writing about. Meticulous examination of translated papers (also commonly considered secondary publications) reveals traces of originality inherited by the way the translator used the language.”

Mary Ellen Kerans also agreed that “original article” (OA) exclusively refers (in our discourse among editors) to hypothesis/question-driven research (reported with specific methods sections and new data in the results section). Some journals (in their tables of contents or instructions) use the phrase “research article” for these. In talking to each other informally, we sometimes just call them “originals.” SRs, are a “special type” and share features of OAs but are usually in separate Table of Contents sections, because of their specialness regarding the type of data used. All good writing (whether in case reports, narrative reviews, editorials...) requires original thinking. Therefore, we don’t spurn case reports or narrative reviews, etc. as “unoriginal.” But “originality” in an article does not mean it’s an “original article” in a Table of Contents.

Hence, the editors have to be extremely careful while accommodating different manuscripts under different sections in the Table of Contents of the journal. While upholding professional ethics, they must ensure that the authors are not deprived of their due credit which they need for academic promotions once they have conducted original research and their manuscript’s deserve to be included in the section of original articles.

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