Journal Series #1: What are Journals?

At Science ACEs, we believe in science for all, and while we enjoy sharing the latest in science news and figuring out how accurate our favorite tv shows are, we also take an interest in improving the conversation between scientists and non-scientists.  Scientific literature is highly technical and specialized and may feel out of reach to those unfamiliar with it, but  if you know how to find it, then with a little bit of work you can look at data and draw your own conclusions, freeing yourself from pundits and marketing ploys.

This will be the first part of a series of posts I’ll be making on how to approach and conquer scientific literature. I’ll start with what a journal is and how scientific studies go through peer review to enter journals. After that I’ll talk about the variety of journals out there, how to find them, what to look out for. I’ll finish up with the general structure of a journal article and tips for getting through jargon and interpreting results. For today though, we’ll go through a journal and point out some of its features and talk about peer review.

I have a physical copy of Science magazine in my hands. New issues come out about every week. As I flip through it, it seems like a normal magazine: Table of Contents, lots of advertisements, science news and opinion pieces. Eventually I reach the original research, presented in dense jargon and information-rich pictures. Science covers a broad range of topics, so I see work on cholesterol a few pages away from multiphoton entangled quantum states (whatever that means). Where did these types of magazines come from and how did they become this way?

The first scientific journal started unofficially in 1665 by the Royal Society as a way to keep records of their meetings. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was a means for people who could not make it to London to still be a part of the scientific community and keep aware of advances. Journals gained in popularity as an alternative to frequent correspondence by mail. Another function of the academic journal was to set a record of who discovered something first. Scientific prestige is granted to the first person to discover a phenomenon, so an orderly method for determining precedence became necessary.

A formalized system of peer review was later added likely to protect journals from faulty sciences. Peer review means that if I want to publish a result, I must convince a few of the experts in my field that my science is sound and that my interpretation of results is proper. First, I submit my paper to the editor of a journal I want my work to be shown in. That editor looks at my paper and decides if it’s something the journal would be interested in publishing. If yes, the editor sends it off to reviewers who have a basic understanding of my field and would be likely to be able to critically evaluate my work. The reviewers are kept anonymous to me to prevent retribution for an unfavorable review. The editor gives me back the reviewer comments and I try to address them. Sometimes the reviewer asks for a section to be rewritten for clarity or sometimes they ask for additional experiments that they feel are necessary. If I can then satisfy the reviewers and the editor my paper is published and will appear in that journal. Hurray!

Scientists love to complain about peer review (especially reviewer 3), but without it the quality of publications would surely fall. Peer review is a means of keeping science honest. Pressure to publish is causing some researchers to submit papers to journals who do not use peer review and instead print anything as long as they receive their publishing fee. Next time, I talk more about these fake journals and how they are causing trouble for science and leading to confusion between scientists and nonscientists.

Bryan Visser
2013-12-04 14.06.58Bryan is a 2nd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He plans on making a career for science advocacy working at a museum or in Washington, DC. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom dancing.


One thought on “Journal Series #1: What are Journals?

  1. Pingback: Journals #2: All Journals Big and Small. Why are there so many? – Science ACEs

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