17 Aug 2010

What is the scientific paper? 1: Observations

This is a guest post by Joe Dunckley
Last year, after Science Online, I wrote a series of posts inspired by Ian Mulvany's question, what is the scientific paper? Those were originally posted on my old blog; now, with SoLo approaching once again, seems like a good time to revisit them, while migrating them over to Journalology.
Science Online charged us with answering the question, what is the scientific paper? Here is the answer. It comes from the perspective of somebody who has been middle author on just two, but who has spent a little bit of time working with them and with people who think a lot about them.
What does the scientific paper look like?

  • It's a few thousand words -- probably between 4 and 15 pages long (but can be <1 >100 pages).
  • It's mostly prose text, with a little bit of graphs, tables, and pictures.
  • It has a set matter-of-fact style and structure.
  • It's written in (American) English.1
What is in the scientific paper?
  • Who did the science.
  • Why the science was done.
  • How the science was done.
  • Data!
  • The authors' interpretation of what was achieved by doing the science.
  • Pointers to the other bits of science mentioned.
Where is the scientific paper?
  • It is in a journal, available in one or both of:
    • printed on 4-15 sheets of dead trees, between a pair of glossy (or not so glossy) covers in the basement of a library.
    • a journal website, possibly with technology deliberately designed to make it difficult and expensive to get to, probably only available in a clunky and poorly designed PDF file.
  • It might also be in-part or in-full in a searchable database, like PubMed.
  • If you're really lucky, it is available as HTML and XML.
What is the scientific paper for?
  • It aims to be a complete, objective, reliable, and permanent record of a unit of science done.
  • It's a way of telling your field what you've done.
  • It's a way of telling your field what you've found.
  • It's a way of giving data and resources to your field.
  • It's a (the?) way of proving to your (potential) employer/funder that you have done something worthwhile.
  • It's a way of making money for publishers
How is the scientific paper made?
  • The authors are given some money and lab space on the condition that they use it to do some science and write a paper about it.2
  • The authors do some science and write a paper about it.
  • They give it to a journal. The journal thinks about it.
  • Peer review! Months of scrutiny, discussion, and revisions.
  • Production! The words are turned into PDFs and printed pages.
What is the scientific paper not?
  • Part of a conversation.
  • Quick and efficient.
  • Diverse and flexible.
  • Possible to edit after acceptance by the journal (except in extreme circumstances, and via slow and unsatisfactory mechanisms).
  • Possible to edit by anybody except "the authors".
  • A way of making your data and resources reusable.
  • A way of telling the layperson what you've done and found.
Wait, that wasn't really what the question meant, you say? Well, indeed. But before we get to the real questions -- "what's wrong with the scientific paper?" and "what do you suppose we do about that?" -- it's good to define some terms and lay out the basics. Do you think I've got any of my observations wrong, or think I've overlooked some important property of the scientific paper? Do say -- it would be good to try to agree on what the paper is before going any further.
  1. Thanks to Hannah who added this point in the comments on the old blog
  2. Thanks to Cameron Neylon, ditto

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