On the road: farewelling Elaine Beller

After 20 years of stellar contributions to Cochrane, Elaine Beller is shifting her keen focus from biostatistics to bushwalking, and embracing semi-retirement. Last week we caught up with Elaine on the road from outback Birdsville – a leisurely 27 hour drive from her home on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Though never one to seek the limelight, she was (after a little encouragement) happy to share some parting thoughts about her time as a prolific and multi-talented Cochrane contributor.  

Elaine Beller is widely recognised as having an amazing ability to analyse and explain the most complex of matters and methods - be it through her writing, research, teaching, statistical consulting or training materials. An Associate Professor of Biostatistics at Bond University, she’s worked as a biostatistician for some of Australia’s largest randomised clinical trials (RCTs). Through her research work, she has looked at improving the conduct, analysis and use of RCTs across cardiology, nephrology, oncology and orthopaedics. Add to that over 100 peer-reviewed papers and a host of workshops and training resources on clinical trials methods, systematic reviews and epidemiology, and you have a fraction of her distinguished career outside of the world of Cochrane.

Inside Cochrane, her contributions are similarly substantial. Elaine has been an author and statistician for 11 Cochrane Groups, and is a long-time member of both the Trainers Network and Statistical Methods Group among others. For the past three years she has been the Deputy Co-ordinating Editor of Cochrane Kidney and Transplant (CKT) and also worked closely with Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) at Bond. With such an expert guiding hand in so many groups, projects and reviews, Elaine’s departure represents a significant loss of knowledge, skills and trademark good humour for her many colleagues and friends across the organisation. 

‘I’ve really enjoyed the variety of working for so many different groups and getting to know different disease areas in detail,’ Elaine says. ‘It’s been a difficult decision to step back from my Cochrane commitments but it’s time to spend more concentrated blocks of time on other things. Workwise I’ll still be at Bond developing a new Masters in Evidence Based Practice, supervising my PhD students and getting around to publishing a few unfinished papers. But I’ll also be able to travel a bit more and get to a few more of the folk festivals I’d love to see in different parts of Australia.’  

Looking back rather than forward, Elaine was what you might now call an early-adopter when it comes to all things Cochrane. ‘I first heard about systematic reviews when Dave Sackett visited Australia in the late ‘80s,’ she says. ‘He was such an amazing guy and I was fascinated by his ideas. We started looking at systematic reviews in our journal club at the Clinical Trials Centre at Sydney Uni and got to know about Cochrane reviews through that. Before long people started consulting me about the analysis of systematic reviews and it all evolved from there.’ 

In 2009 Elaine headed to Oxford for a sabbatical at the UK Cochrane Centre and the Centre for Statistics in Medicine, where she had the opportunity to pursue methodological research with Doug Altman. ‘I remember being so nervous the first time I was going to meet ‘The Great Doug Altman’, as I’d heard so much about him,’ Elaine laughs. ‘But of course Doug was just so humble and laid back. He was instrumental in getting me into the quality and methodological side of reviews more so than just statistical consulting, so he really changed the course of my career. I was quite devastated when he passed away recently.’

Elaine’s work with Doug sparked an ongoing interest in looking at and improving the way systematic reviews are written up. She returned to Australia from Oxford to join long-time colleague Paul Glasziou at the Centre for Research in Evidence Based Research at Bond University, and a conversation between the two about several confusing abstracts prompted them to publish a call to arms in JAMA in 2011. In it, they argued abstracts should include the main results in both numbers and words, and that the interpretation of results shouldn’t require statistical knowledge. 

‘That was our first methodological paper on abstracts and a lot of interesting work then arose out of that – including the PRISMA for Abstracts checklist that now gives authors a framework and guidance to present systematic reviews in a way that meets the needs of different readers. There’s still a long way to go, but we have seen some progress in the overall quality of abstracts – particularly Cochrane abstracts. I do think we should just have one abstract rather than a technical and a plain English abstract. The problem is that authors often assume readers have the necessary technical knowledge to understand what are often badly written technical abstracts, but as the research consistently shows even experienced clinicians often don’t understand them. I’m working on another paper in this area so hope to have a little more time to get that published before too long.’

Elaine’s many contributions to this and other important areas have been much valued within Cochrane and beyond, bringing as she does an unusual depth of knowledge across statistics, methods and the written word – areas that few people understand when taken together. Her skills and accessible approach will be greatly missed. Before wrapping up our interview and getting back to the first of many intrepid adventures of semi-retirement, Elaine offered some sage advice for future contributors. 

‘Getting involved in a systematic review as an author is a great thing, but at first just get involved as an author - not as a lead author,’ she concludes. ‘I see a lot of students take on a systematic review as a lead author and really struggle. So I think it’s better to come in as an author with an experienced lead before you take on your own. Overall, I just have to say that Cochrane is an incredible organisation that’s worth belonging to and getting involved with, because what you will learn and take out of it is just amazing.’

Image: Elaine arrives at Machu Picchu after a fantastic four day trek on the Inca Trail in Peru.  
Words: Shauna Hurley