Background: Pre-publication peer review of manuscripts should enhance the value of research publications to readers who may wish to utilize findings in clinical care or health policy-making. Much published research across all medical specialties is not useful, may be misleading, wasteful and even harmful. Reporting guidelines are tools that in addition to helping authors prepare better manuscripts may help peer reviewers in assessing them. We examined journals' instructions to peer reviewers to see if and how reviewers are encouraged to use them.
Methods: We surveyed websites of 116 journals from the McMaster list. Main outcomes were 1) identification of online instructions to peer reviewers and 2) presence or absence of key domains within instructions: on journal logistics, reviewer etiquette and addressing manuscript content (11 domains).
Findings: Only 41/116 journals (35%) provided online instructions. All 41 guided reviewers about the logistics of their review processes, 38 (93%) outlined standards of behaviour expected and 39 (95%) contained instruction about evaluating the manuscript content. There was great variation in explicit instruction for reviewers about how to evaluate manuscript content. Almost half of the online instructions 19/41 (46%) mentioned reporting guidelines usually as general statements suggesting they may be useful or asking whether authors had followed them rather than clear instructions about how to use them. All 19 named CONSORT for reporting randomized trials but there was little mention of CONSORT extensions. PRISMA, QUOROM (forerunner of PRISMA), STARD, STROBE and MOOSE were mentioned by several journals. No other reporting guideline was mentioned by more than two journals.
Conclusions: Although almost half of instructions mentioned reporting guidelines, their value in improving research publications is not being fully realised. Journals have a responsibility to support peer reviewers. We make several recommendations including wider reference to the EQUATOR Network online library (www.equator-network.org/).