Background: In their research reports, scientists are expected to discuss limitations that their studies have. Previous research showed that often, such discussion is absent. Also, many journals emphasize the importance of avoiding overstatement of claims. We wanted to see to what extent editorial handling and peer review affects self-acknowledgment of limitations and hedging of claims.
Methods: Using software that automatically detects limitation-acknowledging sentences and calculates the level of hedging in sentences, we compared the submitted manuscripts and their ultimate publications of all randomized trials published in 2015 in 27 BioMed Central (BMC) journals and BMJ Open. We used mixed linear and logistic regression models, accounting for clustering of manuscript-publication pairs within journals, to quantify before-after changes in the mean numbers of limitation-acknowledging sentences, in the probability that a manuscript with zero self-acknowledged limitations ended up as a publication with at least one and in hedging scores.
Results: Four hundred forty-six manuscript-publication pairs were analyzed. The median number of manuscripts per journal was 10.5 (interquartile range 6-18). The average number of distinct limitation sentences increased by 1.39 (95% CI 1.09-1.76), from 2.48 in manuscripts to 3.87 in publications. Two hundred two manuscripts (45.3%) did not mention any limitations. Sixty-three (31%, 95% CI 25-38) of these mentioned at least one after peer review. Changes in mean hedging scores were negligible.
Conclusions: Our findings support the idea that editorial handling and peer review lead to more self-acknowledgment of study limitations, but not to changes in linguistic nuance.