Lessons from Seoul - From Cochrane reforms to eating live squid

Panorama view of Seoul

I will try and make this more about useful things I learned and less of egotistical self-aggrandisement.

Right then. You may or may not know that a Cochrane Colloquium is the annual meeting of the secret society known as Cochrane. Actually the meeting is a tightly packed combination of three things: 1) meetings of various Cochrane groups, teams, networks and such, 2) scientific/methodological presentations (i.e the fare of a "normal" scientific conference) and 3) practical hands-on workshops about various tools that can make conducting systematic reviews a lot less painful. This year a like-minded bunch of evidence enthusiasts converged in Seoul, South Korea.

So, as a Managing Editor, I of course attended the MEs' meeting. There I learned at least three important things. First, I heard that there's a nice recording of Nuala Livingstone's webinar called Common errors and best practice when writing a review protocol. We should all watch this. Preferably several times. The second thing is that there are also nifty new online learning modules for editors. These are also called Common Errors. I fully intend to bully all our editors to wade through these. Or I might ask nicely first. And the third shiny new thing is the idea of adding dummy tables into our protocol template. This way we can impart a better understanding to our authors about what we want to see in Characteristics of included studies, Risk of Bias and Summary of Findings tables. Brilliant.

And when it comes to improving the whole of Cochrane, there was a lot of hubbub in 2016 about the Structure and Function review. The basic gist of this was that there are too many groups that are too small and too scattered. The idea was to see how groups could be coalesced into larger units. These were first called clusters and then, slightly less ominously, hubs. However, in Seoul we learned that this whole idea has now gone out the window. The expectation is now that groups should strive to find common ground more organically and somehow save money and resources whilst doing so. Whereas the actual tangible next step in the process is that the Central Editorial Unit (CEU) is going to conduct a sustainability review of all Cochrane groups. The idea is to establish how secure their funding is now and in the future and if there are plans in place to ensure smooth succession when operations are disrupted by things like retirement or maternity leave. For example, Cochrane Work has no secured funding nor succession planning. Hardly exemplary, I’d say!

Well that was awfully serious. Probably good to lighten the mood now. As a seasoned Colloquimizer (technical term), I knew there would be a free afternoon. So, I asked a local author and friend to whip up what I christened the Alternative Tour of Seoul. I proceeded to advertise it on Twitter. But ultimately only Erik von Elm from Cochrane Switzerland was brave enough to join us. The programme ended up consisting of three things: 1) traditional Korean sauna, 2) dinner at a famous squid restaurant and 3) walking around some shops. First the sauna. As a Finn, I'm used to going butt naked. But this was Korea. So we took off our own kit and wore what looked like American prison outfits: orange sweaters and matching trousers! Then we flip-flopped our way through heavy red curtains (very Twin Peaks!) into a dimly lit oval clay-walled cave with a wooden grated floor on which we duly sat. We were the only ones there. And then of course we sweated until our bums and soles of feet got numb on the hot floor. This was the hot sauna that we endured for probably about 15-20 minutes. Hard to tell in a fully immersive fantastic weird-out sensory experience like this! Then we tried the really hot sauna. Even though a local lady (wearing the female version of the sauna uniform: red sweater and matching trousers) warned our guide not to take us westerners in there. Pah! we said and went in all the same. The experience was much the same (peaceful, harmonious, uplifting and all that) but we didn't last as long due to the acute numbing effects of sitting on a hot floor. Turned out all the locals were in the third mild sauna. This included a half dozen men, women and a child. And two strange foreigners. Finally, having enjoyed the whole experience totally and after a thorough wash and rinse (first having jettisoned our thoroughly sweat-flavoured garments), we set sail to the squid restaurant. Again we were the only gringos. Or whatever the local term is.

But first a little bit more official business. At the Colloquium, I had the distinct pleasure of hosting a joint meeting between Cochrane Work and Cochrane Insurance Medicine. At first there were just us organisers but then we were joined by a duo representing the newly established Cochrane Rehabilitation. So we just had a chat and discussed ongoing projects. Nothing Earth shattering. I also had the honour of organising the infographics and other visualisations meeting. This was a bit more of success with about ten participants. Although it quickly became clear that many had come expecting a hands-on workshop where I’d take them through the production process of an infographic. Having duly noted this on the wish list for 2017, I proceeded to explain about the blog I’d set up, i.e. www.visuallycochrane.net and what sort of contributions it has amassed. Very nice ones, I’d say. The biggest upshot of the meeting was that Holly Millward and I agreed that we would draft a decision aid flowchart to help people decide what sort of visualisation they actually need. The thing is, like Muriah’s post nicely showed, that sometimes a photograph will do quite nicely and so there’s no need to expend all the energy required to do a full-blown infographic. Because good ones can require a good deal of thinking and design work.

And then back to the squid. If ever you’ve seen Survivor or any other TV show where the contestants find themselves chewing on something distinctly alien to their respective gastric juices, this occasion was not too dissimilar. Except that we weren’t competing but eager volunteers willing to expand our horizons with new culinary experiences. I can’t say I’ve encountered anything before that fits the bill better than live squid. I suppose it wasn’t actually alive anymore as the creature had been chopped up whilst still alive so that the bits of tentacle kept writhing on the plate for a good 30 minutes or so. It may sound disgusting that food actively grabs hold of your tongue or the inside of your cheek but the experience is so out of this world that I will recommend it to everyone. And it tastes good too!

treats at the squid restaurant

Finally, I have just a few more business items to mention. Should anyone wish to get a feel for what the new RevMan Web will look like, feel free to have a go on this live mock-up version. My feeling is that it will be a lot more intuitive and helpful than the current desktop RevMan 5.3. We shall be following developments closely. Talking of new tools, the Risk of Bias 2.0 tool was officially released in Seoul. However, as long as it only exists on paper and it hasn’t been incorporated into RevMan we do not recommend using it. This is because the tool is tortuous and demoralising to use in any format. Keeping track of the paper work would be awful. And since there are no plans to phase out the existing RoB 1.0 tool, we keep using it until further notice.

I also participated in a workshop on using the Updating Classification System. With this system, Review Groups, like ours, can apply and update an Updating Status as often as needed, as its publication is not dependent on the publication of the Cochrane Review. Fantastic.

The final business item following the end of the Cochrane Colloquium was me travelling to the south coast of South Korea, specifically to Ulsan, to give a presentation to Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) about Cochrane Work. I suggested several possibilities of mutually beneficial cooperation in the creation and dissemination of evidence to improve the health and safety of workers. My audience was very nice and welcoming and asked questions about the difference between our group and Cochrane Korea. In the end we exchanged gifts and everything. But I’m still waiting if they take up my offer to collaborate.

So all in all, the Colloquium was yet again jam-packed full of interesting talks, networking and learning. If you haven’t been to one, I thoroughly recommend making plans for the one in Edinburgh in 2018. I hope to see you there!

Jani Ruotsalainen, Managing Editor, Cochrane Work

Jani wearing the Hanbok