Science & Publication

A common image of the scientist is as a lonely, self-absorbed, solitary (and perhaps semi- or completely insane) person. 

This misrepresent how normal (both for good and bad), most scientists actually are. It minimizes the importance of the social aspect of science.

At its heart, science is a social endeavor.   No one scientist works alone, and scientific discoveries that are not announced, placed in context, critically analyzed, and repeated by others are essentially worthless - they are not part of science. 

The publication of results, ideas and speculations is therefore integral to science.   A scientific publication describes the observations made and the methods used to make them.

It also places the observations in the context of what is already known, and draws conclusions as to what the observations imply. 


It is written to be completely clear to others, so that if they want, they can reproduce the experiments or observations for themselves.  If special instruments are needed, they describe where to obtain, or how to build, those instruments. 

If a reader finds the work interesting enough, they may devise their own experiments or observations to confirm, extend or refute the conclusions presented in the "paper".

This style can make scientific papers difficult to read - there is so much to say that often it is said in a type of shorthand.  The reader is assumed to understand either the basic ideas, or to be able to follow citations to other papers to find discover ideas for themselves. 

As in medicine, a major problem is vocabulary.  Specialized terms are used to encapsulate very specific ideas (or body parts or disease syndromes).  Many words have scientific meanings that have diverged significantly from their meanings in "normal" speech.

Scientific vocabulary grows more arcane over time; more and more information is condensed into specific terms.

When you first begin to read papers in a particular subject, it may seem that they are written in a bizarre secret language -- relax, you are not imagining things -- it is bizarre at times, but it is not secret.

  • What would you do if you wanted to publish a scientific paper, but did not want to disclose a "trade secret" involved in making the observations upon which the paper is based?
  • What are the most common reasons that lead to a scientific paper being completely ignored?
  • Why is the image of the isolated scientist unrealistic?
Hurdles to publication:  Once a manuscript has been prepared, the authors have to decide where to try and publish it.

There are two general types of scientific publications, those that are peer-reviewed and those that are not.

In biology, publications in peer-reviewed journals are the standard by which a scientist's contributions are judged.

Different journals vary rather dramatically in their selectivity.  Some will publish only what their editors consider to be the most significant work, leaving work that they deem less important to "lesser" journals.

There are a great many journals, with quite a range of standards.


A note on

Before a written work is published, it is referred to as a manuscript.

Once published, it becomes a paper.

Reviewers: the second 'hurdle':  If the editor decides that a manuscript is suitable for their journal, they will send it "out for review".

The editor will pick two or three experts in the field to read the manuscript. They will prepare a written report, a review, that will comment on

  • whether the methods used were capable of generating the data presented
  • whether the experiments were well controlled
  • whether the data presented are complete and convincing
  • whether the data supports the author's conclusions
  • and whether the conclusions are significantly new or important enough to justify publication.

They may accept the manuscript for publication, or more commonly, recommend changes or added experiments to clarify specific points. The authors can then respond to these comments, generally by performing the suggested experiments or by rewriting the manuscript.

The editor may decide that the author's response addresses the reviewer's concerns or they may send the revised manuscript back to be re-reviewed.

  • What kinds of "conflicts of interest" may effect the review process?
  • What does it mean that the experiments are "well controlled"?
  • Sometimes important results are published in "lesser journals"; why might this happen?
  • Sometimes work published in an "important" journal is wrong; what factors could lead to such an event?
  • Do you think that it is ethical for a reviewer to start working on a topic, after they review a paper on that topic? 
A little scientific sociology:  The truth is, many scientific papers do not excite much response. They are ignored.

An interesting reference tool is the Science Citation Index which enables you to look up which papers have been cited by other authors. There are also rankings for different journals that indicate the number of times papers published in them are referred to in other papers -- this is referred to as the journal's impact factor

The first formal scientific journal was published in 1665 by the Royal Society of London, and most journals used to be published by scientific societies. 

With the growth of professional science and engineering, however, the publication of journals became a serious commercial enterprise.  There are now thousands of journals in the biological sciences alone.

Read the following web article: The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science : by R.L. Park.
  • Come to class prepared to discuss why a paper might be scientific and yet be ignored by the scientific community.
  • What are the signs that a "scientific"claim is bogus.  What would lead you to change your mind?
  • What extra-scientific factors would influence where a paper is published?
  • There are papers that are published that are wrong - how does that happen?

Use Wikipedia | revised 18 November 2010