Background: The electronic version of the British Medical Journal (eBMJ) has a unique feature in that it provides an electronic record of the number of times an article has been viewed ("hits") in the week after its publication. We sought to compare the relative popularity of primary research and "evidence-based" papers against that of narrative reviews and editorials. We surveyed four broad groupings of articles in 2001: Editorials, Clinical Reviews (which are narrative reviews), Education and Debate, and Papers (which are original research articles and systematic reviews). Clinical Reviews were the most frequently viewed articles, with an average of 4148 hits per article, while Papers were less popular (average of 1168 hits per article). Systematic reviews (23 articles, average of 1190 hits per article) were visited far less often than narrative reviews. Editorials (average of 2537 hits per article) were viewed much more frequently than Papers, even where the editorial was written as an accompanying piece with a direct link to the paper.
Discussion: Narrative reviews and editorials are accessed more frequently than primary research papers or systematic reviews in the first week after their publication. These findings may disappoint those who believe that it is important for readers to critically appraise the primary research data. Although the technical quality of journal articles may have been helped by recommendations on structured reporting, the readability of such articles has received little attention. Authors and journal editors must take steps to make research articles and systematic reviews more attractive to readers. This may involve using simpler language, as well as innovative use of web resources to produce shorter, snappier papers, with the methodological or technical details made available elsewhere.
Conclusion: Primary research and "evidence-based" papers seem to be less attractive to readers than narrative reviews and editorials in the first week after publication. Authors and editors should try to improve the early appeal of primary research papers.