A Very Brief Introduction to the Scientific Literature

Scientific Communication | Peer Review

Nature of Scientific Communication

Sharing the results of scientific experiments is one of the most important aspects of science. Early scientists shared their observations and results in open letters to their colleagues that were hand copied and passed from person to person. Pretty soon, scientists developed better ways of sharing their results with each other, and our current knowledge of science and the world around us is dependent upon current scientists sharing their results.

Scientists share their discoveries with each other in several ways. Informally, scientific colleagues may call or email each other about their latest research. But once the experiments have been done and the analysis carried out, a scientist needs to share this new information with a wider audience in a more formal manner. Other scientists can then find this information to help them design their own experiments, to put their own research in context, and to add to our knowledge of the world.

One of the most common ways for scientists to formally share their research is to publish a “journal article.” The journal article is a part of the formal written record of the scientific process, and you’ve probably come across them before.

A typical scholarly, scientific journal article (aka “ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE” or “PRIMARY RESEARCH ARTICLE”) is PEER REVIEWED (more on this later), discusses the authors’ original research, offers thoughtful analysis of the results, and cites relevant papers from other authors that relate to the research.

A slightly different type of journal article (called a “REVIEW ARTICLE”) will not report on original research, but will outline the current state of research in a particular field, citing the appropriate literature and connecting the various pieces of research together. Review articles are generally peer reviewed.

Review articles and original research articles can often look the same at first glance, and most search engines or databases won’t tell you what type of an article it is. To tell them apart, you need to identify whether the authors are discussing their own research and experiments or someone else’s. Often, the “Materials and methods” section (aka “Experimental procedures” or something similar) will be your best clue. This section is occasionally stored online, separate from the article as a part of the “supplementary materials”.

If the authors are discussing research and experiments that they carried out, and giving you an outline of the experiment, it will be an original research article.

Both type of journal articles can be found online and/or in print.

When you are searching for information on a research topic, you may also run across some other types of information. Shorter news articles (1-2 pages) may appear in some scientific and popular publications reporting on recent developments in a particular field, or reporting on a particular piece of research. These news articles are not peer reviewed, and are normally written by science journalists, not researchers. The news articles may be easier to read, but since they are normally one or two steps removed from the original research, a news article may not be the best source for your paper or project. However, news articles can lead you to a piece of original research, and can help you easily stay informed about recent research developments.

If you conduct your searches online, via Google, Yahoo or another popular search engine, you may find journal articles, but you may also come across other scientific information that can take many forms. Wikis, blogs and personal websites can often contain a lot of scientific information, but these resources are generally very far removed from the original research where the ideas were first developed. Each of these sources needs to be evaluated very carefully to determine if the information is credible, and these sources won’t be suitable for a research paper. There is a lot of great scientific information on the web, but there is also a lot of bad science, pseudo-science, and non-science-pretending-to-be-science available and distinguishing them can be tricky.

Peer Review

Peer review is the process that allows scientists to trust the reliability of published journal articles. Here’s how it works:

  1. A scientist submits an article to a journal saying “please publish this article.”
  2. The journal finds 2 or 3 people who know a lot about the research topic, called REVIEWERS or REFEREES, and asks them to look at the article.
  3. The reviewers look at the article carefully. They check to see if the experiment is designed and conducted well, they look at the analysis of the data, they see whether the conclusions are justified by the data, and they make sure the article can be understood by other scientists. They also make a judgment about how “important” the article is. Some journals only accept really innovative and important research, other journals accept research that advances the field just a little bit.
  4. The reviewers say “yes, we should publish this article”, “no, we shouldn’t publish this article” or “if the author makes some changes, maybe we should publish this article”
  5. If the article is published, we can say that it has been PEER REVIEWED.

Scientists rely on their colleagues, the reviewers, to make sure that good science is given a wide audience and that not-so-good science stays out of the science journals. Because blogs, wikis and personal websites don’t automatically have this expert filter, you have to do a lot more digging to determine if the information is reliable.

Of course, peer-review isn’t perfect. It isn’t good at filtering out deliberately fraudulent results. Because humans perform peer review, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of individual scholars. It is difficult to evaluate the features of a good review, and many researchers have identified problems with the process. For an excellent overview of the problems with peer review and how scientists are trying to resolve them, see the article, “Meet Science: ‘What is peer review’?” written by Maggie Koerth-Baker at the website BoingBoing.net.

The only way to tell if a journal article has been peer reviewed is to look for information about the journal itself, normally on the publishers website. Most databases won’t indicate if an article is peer reviewed or not.


Updated September 12, 2014


4 thoughts on “A Very Brief Introduction to the Scientific Literature

    1. @MC Blackburn – I’ve licensed these pages under a Creative Commons license, which means you are free to use them for any non-commercial use, as long as you credit me. Feel free to share this with your class! I’m glad to know that folks find the information useful.

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