How is a science article produced?
Step 1: Observation
Scientists first start with an observation. This could be something:
- In their field of study
- They’ve noticed in the lab
- They’ve noticed about the animals or plants they study
Step 2: Background Reading
This is background literature reading on the 100 years of research that has been done in the biological sciences (or whatever field they’re in)
Step 3: Hypothesis
The hypothesis combines both the observation and the background research.
Step 4: Design Experiment
This experiment will be designed to test that hypothesis
Step 5: Collect Data
During the experiment the scientist collects, compiles and analyzes the data.
Usually the next step is to test an alternative hypothesis, or conduct additional different experiments. It almost never happens that your first experiment works perfectly.
Step 6 (& 7) Analyze Data and Write
Likely, after several iterations there’s enough data that the scientist thinks is of high enough quality and rigor that can then be analyzed and written up for scientific publication.
So, how long does the process take?
The whole process listed above can take as little as a year, or decades.
As a Sea Turtle Biologist, Dr. Joe Pfaller deals with animals that live very slowly. it takes a long time to get enough data from Sea Turtles to actually produce a data set that you can use to rigorously test a hypothesis.
And that’s just to get to the point of writing a paper.
Writing, drafting, sending it out to your co-authors to get feedback… This is something you’ve produced that you think is a worthwhile addition to the current scientific literature.
So, you’ve done your research, written your paper, all of your co-authors have looked at it and given it the thumbs up. Then you can submit your article for publication.
First Step – Editor Approval
An editor will receive your submission, look at it and decide:
- Nah, this isn’t really right for us
- No, the science is really bad
- It’s written terribly
- Yep! This topic is right for this journal, and it’s written reasonably well that I’d like to send it out for peer review
Second Step: Peer Review
Peer review is when the editor takes your manuscript and finds (typically) 3 peer reviewers. These Peer Reviewers are experts in the field that will assess the quality of the paper and science.
One key piece of this, is that you as the author don’t know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers know that you don’t know who they are. So, when the reviewers comment on your manuscript they don’t have to worry about the ramifications of how you perceive them – because it’s blind.
Those reviewers will evaluate
- The quality of the science
- The quality of the experiments
- The interpretations that you are making about the results that you generated
So, this is a really important step in the scientific process because if the science, experiments, or data is bad then the reviewers will call you out on it most of the time. If there was bad science, misinformation, bad background research, or poor writing in this piece of scientific literature it would be identified by either the editor or the peer reviewers during this process and hopefully rejected at this point in the process.
Third Step: Reviewer Comments and Decision
The Peer Reviewers give the editor their comments and decisions after evaluating your write up. The decision they give includes if they think it should be rejected, accepted but with major revisions (background science is sound but the writer needs to update x,y,z), accepted minor revisions. You’re really really lucky if you’re accepted with minor revisions! (cosmetic changes, etc.)
So, the review comments go back to the Editor who then sends them back to you, the author. As the author, you then read through the comments. Remember: These reviewers commented knowing you don’t know who they are. So, sometimes it’s frustrating getting the reviews back because people are very honest with their comments. They may make you want to shove your manuscript in a drawer for a couple nights while you’re mad about it…
Fourth Step: Address Comments and Return
Then you remember… this is part of the process. I need to pull that manuscript out and do my best to try and address the comments from the reviewers.
So, you pull it out, address the comments best you can, and then send your responses to the reviewer comments back to the editor. The editor then assesses whether your responses to the reviewer comments are adequate enough to pass your manuscript on to the next level.
If at the end of this process your manuscript is deemed to be of high enough scientific rigor, it will be accepted to be published in a scientific journal.
Because of the peer review process, after the one year to several decades of time it takes you to produce the paper that you submit to the journal it takes roughly another year or so for to complete the process and be published in a scientific journal!
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