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Scientific literature

Scientific literature comprises scientific publications that report original empirical and theoretical work in the natural and social sciences, and within a scientific field is often abbreviated as the literature. Academic publishing is the process of placing the results of one's research into the literature. Scientific research on original work initially published in scientific journals is called primary literature. Patents and technical reports, for minor research results and engineering and design work (including computer software) can also be considered primary literature. Secondary sources include articles in review journals (which provide a synthesis of research articles on a topic to highlight advances and new lines of research), and books for large projects, broad arguments, or compilations of articles. Tertiary sources might include encyclopedias and similar works intended for broad public consumption.

Types of scientific publications

Scientific literature can include the following kinds of publications:

The significance of these different components of the literature varies between disciplines and has changed over time. As of 2006, peer-reviewed journal articles remain the predominant publication type, and have the highest prestige. However, journals vary enormously in their prestige and importance, and the value of a published article depends on the journal. The significance of books, also called research monographs depends on the subject. Generally books published by university presses are usually considered more prestigious than those published by commercial presses. The status of working papers and conference proceedings depends on the discipline; they are typically more important in the applied sciences. The value of publication as a preprint or scientific report on the web has in the past been low, but in some subjects, such as mathematics or high energy physics, it is now an accepted alternative. For further information about these formats, see the corresponding article.

Preparation of an article

The actual day-to-day records of scientific information are kept in research notebooks or logbooks. These are usually kept indefinitely as the basic evidence of the work, and are often kept in duplicate, signed, notarized, and archived. The purpose is to preserve the evidence for scientific priority, and in particular for priority for obtaining patents. They have also been used in scientific disputes. Since the availability of computers, the notebooks in some data-intensive fields have been kept as database records, and appropriate software is commercially available.

The work on a project is typically published as one or more technical reports, or articles. In some fields both are used, with preliminary reports, working papers, or preprints followed by a formal article. Articles are usually prepared at the end of a project, or at the end of components of a particularly large one.

Clear communication and impact factor

Often, scientific advancement depends upon publishing in high-impact journals, most of which are English-language journals. Scientists with poor English writing skills are at a disadvantage when trying to publish in these journals, regardless of the quality of the scientific study itself. Yet many international universities require publication in these high-impact journals by both their students and faculty. Part of the difficulty in publishing is attributable to a known editorial bias against studies produced in the developing world, resulting in published research that is skewed towards health issues specific to the developed world. One way to balance the international distribution of published research, is for international scientists to increase their publication rate in English-language, high-impact journals.

Authorship

The nature of the content

A scientific article has a standardized structure, which varies only slightly in different subjects. Ultimately, it is not the format that is important, but what lies behind it - the content. However, several key formatting requirements need to be met:

  1. The title should be concise and indicate the contents of the article.
  2. The names and affiliation of all authors are given. In the wake of some scientific misconduct cases, publishers often require that all co-authors know and agree on the content of the article.
  3. The first part is normally an abstract; this is a one-paragraphy summary of the work, and is intended to serve as a guide for determining if the articles is pertinent, and to furnish subject metadata for indexing services.
  4. The format should be archival, in the sense that libraries should be able to store and catalogue the documents and scientists years later should be able to recover any document in order to study and assess it, and there should be an established way of citing the document so that formal reference can be made to them in future scientific publication. The lack of an established archival system is one of the hurdles that World Wide Web based scientific publication has had to overcome. Reliable repositories such as arXiv or PubMed Central have been instituted, and progress is now being made on their interoperability and permanence.
  5. The content should be presented in the context of previous scientific investigations, by citation of relevant documents in the existing literature, usually in a section called an "Introduction".
  6. Empirical techniques, laid out in a section usually called "Materials and Methods", should be described in such a way that a subsequent scientist, with appropriate knowledge of and experience in the relevant field, should be able to repeat the observations and know whether he or she has obtained the same result. This naturally varies between subjects, and obviously does not apply to mathematics and related subjects.
  7. Similarly, the results of the investigation, in a section usually called "Results", data should be presented in tabular or graphic form (image, chart, schematic, diagram or drawing). These figures should be accompanied by a caption and referenced in the text of the article.
  8. Interpretation of the meaning of the results is usually addressed in a "Discussion" or "Conclusion" section. The conclusions drawn should be based on previous literature and/or new empirical results, in such a way that any reader with knowledge of the field can follow the argument and confirm that the conclusions are sound. That is, acceptance of the conclusions must not depend on personal authority, rhetorical skill, or faith.
  9. Finally, a "References" or "Literature Cited" section lists the sources cited by the authors in the format required by the journal.

Peer review

Peer review and the learned journal format are each convenient ways of ensuring that the above fundamental criteria are met, rather than being in themselves essential to scientific literature.

The purpose of peer review of scientific manuscripts submitted for publication in scientific journals is quality control, a term which also encompasses other means towards the same purpose. The "quality" being referred to is the scientific quality, the lack of flaws in the data, and the validity of the conclusions drawn from the data. The lack of peer review is what makes most technical reports and World Wide Web publications unacceptable as contributions to the literature. The relatively weak peer review often applied to books and chapters in edited books means that their status is doubtful, unless an author's personal standing is so high that his or her prior career provides an effective guarantee of quality. Formal peer review is in flux and likely to change fundamentally owing to the emergence of institutional digital repositories where scholars can post their work as it is submitted to a print-based journal. Though this does not prevent peer review, it permits an unreviewed copy into general circulation.

Increasing reliance on abstracting services, especially on those available electronically, means that the effective criterion for whether a publication format forms part of the literature is whether it is covered by these services; in particular, by the specialised service for the discipline concerned such as Chemical Abstracts Service, and by the major interdisciplinary services such as those marketed by the Institute for Scientific Information.

Controversies

The concept of published articles is itself giving rise to controversy, especially as many journals refuse to publish colour plates for example, and if they do, they insist that authors pay the publisher. The problem arises because of the antiquated printing equipment still widely used by many publishers, and by the need for higher quality paper. In popular magazines, colour is the norm rather than the exception, as it is in computer text and articles. This is a great hindrance in many areas of research because colour photographs for example, usually provide much more information than black and white photographs. Often colour pictures are the only form which can be used to illustrate a point, such as blood smears in a forensic science article for example.

Other areas of controversy include the transfer of copyright from author to publisher, because many authors want to propagate their ideas more widely and re-use their material elsewhere without the need for permission. Usually an author or authors circumvent that problem by rewriting an article and using other pictures, but enlightened publishers may also want publicity for their journal so will approve facsimile reproduction unconditionally. Other publishers are more resistant.

Footnotes

See also

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