A publication that stands out in prestige and longevity

Abigail Zuger
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A file photograph of Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen. — PHOTO: M. MOORTHY
A file photograph of Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen. — PHOTO: M. MOORTHY

It is an antique that outperforms all the newer models: The first issues of The New England Journal of Medicine were peeled off a hand-operated letterpress in January 1812, and two centuries later it remains the oldest continuously published general medical journal in the world, and the most prestigious.

Like all print media, medical journals tremble for their survival these days, but no one at The New England Journal seems worried. Its website makes liberal use of pictures and videos, purposely

Actual numbers back that claim: A measurement called the Impact Factor (devised in the 1960s to quantify a journal's prestige by tallying citations of its articles) has landed The New England Journal firmly on top of the pile for years. Of all the country's hundreds of medical journals, why has this one soared? “Some of it was luck,” said Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, the current editor-in-chief. “But I like to think that all the editors in chief have had the same passion for good science” that attracts high-quality work. Dr. Drazen recently read through all 200 years of the journal in honour of its bicentennial — an education in both medicine and communication, he said. Simple narratives were fine for announcing dramatic breakthroughs — like articles introducing the stethoscope, in 1821, and ether anaesthesia, in 1846. But now that most studies describe only incremental improvements in treatment, reports are far more complicated, detailed enough for sub-sub-specialists yet pragmatic enough for general doctors. And members of the public? For the time being, at least, they're on their own. “As patients become more sophisticated, they're welcome to read the journal,” Dr. Drazen said. “But we're not going to start defining our terms.” — New York Times News Service

The New England Journal of Medicine remains the oldest continuously published general medical periodical.

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