Key Concept: Science is a documentary discipline. Like law and literature, its primary working component (the scientific research paper) is a written document.
Understanding what these papers are, how they are put together, and how one should read them, is critical for scientific literacy.
Many historians of science regard the real birth of modern science as the rise of scientific societies, mostly in the 17th Century of Europe:
- Accademia dei Lincei ("Academy of Lynxes"), 1603, Rome
- Royal Society of London, 1660
- Académie des Sciences, 1666, Paris
These societies and their many successors allowed scientists (at the time "natural philosophers") to gather, discuss and debate ideas, challenge each other, and publish. These publications became the main way that scientific ideas were presented to the world and preserved for posterity.
Why write & publish papers?
- Disseminate results
- Claim priority for ideas (specific publication dates allowed a verifiable and agreed-upon date for when ideas were established)
- Provide evidence for claims (allowing for others to attempt at verification/falsification)
- Set up ideas of additional lines of research; implications
- And more
- Periodicals of particular professional societies
- These might be be weekly, monthly, or on even longer schedules, depending on the scope of the science involved
- Some societies (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, etc., cover the entire field of natural, physical, and social sciences.
- But other societies might be much narrower in scope
- Bulletins, conference proceedings, or other less-regular publications (published on special occasions--a particular conference, perhaps--or when a sufficient number of acceptable manuscripts have been gathered)
- Chapters in an edited volume on a particular topic from a technical or university press
- Entire books from a technical or university press
- Self-published in a non-technical press: once far more common, now relatively rare
Scientific papers might be very short (1-2 pages), or monographs (dozens to hundreds of pages long), but most are typically between 4 and a few dozen pages long. Monographs are primarily used to thoroughly document a single particular topic: a complete description of the anatomy and biology of a particular species or group of species; a review of the geography or the geology of a particular region; the results of a particular space probe; etc.: in other words, topics with a large amount of observations in a very narrow topic. Very short papers tend to simply announce a new discovery, document an important new observation, or respond to a particular criticism of previous work. The middle range papers are where most the hypothesis testing goes on.
It was once very common to have single-authored papers, or maybe just two authors. These have become fairly rare, and it is common to find papers with a half-dozen or more authors. In fact, in some cases there can be dozens of contributing authors!
How are scientific papers assembled and published? In general, they follow the pattern here:
- Do the initial research, taking observations, measurements, etc.
- Plot up the graphs, charts, tables, etc. that allow one to test an idea
- Write up the text that explains what was observed, what was tested, what the results were, what it implies, etc.
- Submit the paper for review. In some cases the paper may have been specifically requested by the editors of a journal or book. In most cases, however, it is submitted by the author(s) directly to the editor of an appropriate journal.
- After an initial review by the receiving editor (at which point it might be rejected: for example, if it is blatantly unscientific or if it is on a topic not covered by that journal), the editor sends it out to one or more (often two or three) professionals in the field for peer-review
- Peer-review is one of the hallmarks of scientific analysis. It is typically "blind" (the authors never know who the reviewers are, although they can sometimes suggest appropriate experts), although not typically "double blind" (that is, it is typical for the reviewers to know who the authors are, although some journals actually do make sure that they are double-blind reviews).
- The peer-reviewers do a critical analysis of the manuscript: are the methods sound? Does it take into account previous work on the subject? Are the conclusions justified by the analytical results? Etc.
- The peer-reviewers provided a write-up of their analysis, and their opinion as to whether the paper is acceptable, should be rejected, or might be accepted given certain revisions. This write-up is sent back to the editors of the journal.
- The journal editor takes into account all the critical reviews by the peer-reviewers, and makes a decision to reject, accept, or accept with revisions. On some occasions the editor may send a revised manuscript back to the original reviewers for a second review, or they may use an entirely new team of reviewers.
- If rejected, the authors might submit the manuscript to an entirely different journal, and the whole process starts over again
- If accepted, it is put into the publication queue and eventually makes it into print. Typically a published paper includes the date of submission and the date of acceptance so that other workers in the field have a sense of when these ideas and results were first obtained.
The actual anatomy of a scientific paper often (although not always) follows a standard model. Unlike creative writing pieces, technical scientific writing is generally not intended to be particularly innovative in style, format, or sequence. Instead, a standardized formula is typically used, to make it easier for the readers to get the relevant information for the paper. (That said, some authors may have a more effective style than others...). Very short papers may not have all the following components, but in general your run-of-the-mill scientific publication will include:
- Title of the paper (which should give the reader an idea of what it is about)
- The author(s) and their contact information (institutional affiliation and postal and e-mail addresses)
- An abstract: a short (typically 1-2 paragraph) long section that states the basic problem/issue, the most critical observations, and the fundamental conclusions of the paper. (Let's face it: except for someone actually doing research in the field, it is most likely that the abstract of a paper is the only part that anyone is going to read in any detail.)
- An introduction and background: sometimes the same single section, sometimes split into separate sequential parts. Examines what issue is of concern, and previous work in the subject. It is in this part that the hypothesis/hypotheses to be tested are established.
- Methods & Materials: what analytical techniques and observations are going to be made, and upon what material (specimens) those techniques are going to be made
- Results: when the methods were applied to the materials, what was discovered? Was the hypothesis supported or rejected? With what level of confidence? While plots, charts, and tables may be present in other sections of the paper, they are the "bread-and-butter" of the results section!
- Discussion: given the results, what does it imply for this field of study? What does it suggest about previous ideas on the subject? What implications does it have for future research in this field?
- Conclusions: summary of the results and the discussion. Typically only a paragraph or two long. (The casual reader will likely read the Abstract in detail, skim the middle, look at the figures in the Results, and read the Conclusions in detail.)
- Acknowledgments: typically one-to-two paragraphs, thanking those who contributed to the study but who were not authors (for example, those who might have allowed access to data). Also typically specific reference to funding agencies who lent support to the project, often by listing the number of the specific grant(s) involved.
- Bibliography of those references specifically cited in the text. Unlike books or some other works, only those references which are specifically cited are listed.
The above description reviews the basic components of a scientific technical paper. There are other sorts of publications in the scientific world which some might confuse for a research report. It is important to bear in mind that these other items are NOT technical research papers, and as such do not have the same weight in terms of their importance in the world of science. In general, these other forms of publication are not tests of hypotheses or reports of new observations. Here are some examples, listed roughly in decreasing order of "significance" in terms of their standing as scientific papers:
- Review papers: these often have the same general properties as a scientific technical research paper with one major exception: they are not announcements of new discoveries nor new analyses of data. Instead, reviews are summaries of the current state of research in a particular field. They typically do not give new analytical results or tests of hypotheses. However, they have an important role as places where different papers (often by many different researchers, perhaps but not necessarily the present one) are synthesized into a whole. They are also extremely useful in finding the original research (as references) in a particular field. Review papers are sometimes included within the typical scientific journal (and if so are normally indicated as such). Additionally, there are entire journals (e.g., the huge line of Annual Reviews journals; the Quarterly Review of Biology; etc.) which are entirely review papers.
- Conference abstracts: these are "proto-papers" in a sense: one-to-two paragraph overviews of the work presented at a technical conference (either as a stand-up platform presentation or as a poster). Oftentimes these presentations are the seeds of a future publication. But because just the abstract is presented, and because neither the data nor the analyses yet been subjected to peer-review, they are not regarded as "finished works" in the scientific community. They are occasionally cited in technical research papers because they serve as documents as to when a particular idea or discovery was first presented to the scientific world. However, when the full research article is published, it is that rather than the conference abstract which is regarded as the "real" analysis.
- Commentary: these are labeled as such (or with a special name, such as the "News & Views" section of Nature or the "Perspectives" section of Science). These are normally reviews of a particular technical paper (or perhaps multiple papers) in that issue of the journal, in which a different expert in the same subject is asked to present the important broader implications of that technical paper. In addition to the having a special designation, you can recognize a commentary by: having slightly less "jargony" text, as it is there to translate the highly technical language of the original article into something a non-specialist might appreciate, and; by indicating (typically in the first two paragraphs) the specific article(s) later in that issue which are being discussed.
- News reports: many journals will give short reports announcing the publication, results, and implications of significant new technical publications. These might be papers later in the issue of that journal, or they might be in entirely different journals. News reports can be distinguished from technical research reports (and indeed all the over types of articles already discussed) in that they a) often have no specific author listed; b) are very short (maybe just a single paragraph); c) normally have no references, except for the journal article that is being reported; d) do not show any actual analysis.
- Editorial: some--although by no means all--scientific journals may have an occasional editorial or opinion piece. These are indicated as "Editorial" or "Opinion," and consist of an editor's (or invited author's) thoughts, comments, and opinions on some pressing topic. These almost never have new analytical results, and will typically only have a few references (compared to an actual research article). These are useful to find out what particular editors think about various policies and subjects, but are not scientific results as such.
- Press releases: these might be press releases from the home institution of a researcher, or a granting agency, or a corporation, or many other subjects. In the case of the first two, it is typical for the home institution of a researcher and an agency supporting a particular grant to put out a press release at the same time that important new technical research publications are published. (This is for a number of reasons, not least of which is to justify to the shareholders in that institution that their money is being put to good and productive use!) Note that these press releases are not subject to independent peer review, and consequently are not considered valid references by the scientific community. Their primary value is to communicate with the media and the general public. Similarly public or private institutions and corporations may put out press releases on particular scientific topics. They might be useful in terms of presenting data not otherwise available (e.g., the statistics and measurements of a particular piece of scientific equipment, for instance), and so might be cited in that context. However, analytical results and observations in these are again not subject to independent peer review, and are thus potentially suspect.
Throughout the rest of the program--and indeed, the rest of your academic career--keep these thoughts in mind when evaluating whether a paper you might encounter might be a real technical research report, some other type of scientific account, or something else entirely.
A final note: is peer-review perfect? Of course not, and no one claims that it is! However, the existence of at least this level of checks-and-balance means that scientific technical research reports have had to face a level of criticism that nearly all other forms of publication (news articles, press releases, political tracts, etc.) never have to do before they see the light of day. This is the first main step in the self-correcting nature of Science.
The next main step? If you believe that a previous research article is in error (because of difference in interpretation of methods or observations, or new data that you have uncovered), then you are free to write up a new paper incorporating your new thoughts, and submit it to the same scrutiny. And thus the process continues: what is technically referred to as "reciprocal illumination."
How to Read a Scientific Paper
The above gives you a sense of how scientific research (and other type) papers are constructed. But how should you, as a user of said papers, go about reading them?
One recent tend in undergraduate scientific literacy education is the "C.R.E.A.T.E" approach. This has to do not so much with reading the paper per se, but with attitudes to take when approaching reading science. This (admittedly forced, as are most such things) acronym stands for:
- Consider the topic
- Read the paper itself
- Elucidate the hypotheses. That is, determine precisely what the authors were trying to test.
- Analyze and interpet the data. In other words, see how they tested the hypotheses, whether they were effective in do so, what conclusions they made from it, etc.
- and Think of the next Experiment. Nearly all scientific studies result in new lines of reserach being opened up; think about how one would then approach those new questions.
The stereotyped approach to reading a paper is "abstract, then conclusion, then the stuff in between if you are interested in it". This obviously isn't the way the papers are organized, and is a bit unfair to the researchers' work, but at least it is very quick. However, this is by no means the only way. For instance, here is an essay about a different approach to reading a paper.
As with most written documents, there is no one single proper way to read them. Find what works best for you.
Some Relevent Videos
"The Scientific Method Made Easy" (9:54, by YouTuber potholer54):
"Introduction to Scientific Journal Literature" (put together by the library of Dalhousie University in Canada):