What is a scientific journal? It’s a simple question and one most people can’t be blamed for not knowing the answer to. Many people get through high school and some even through college never needing to look at one.
That’s why today we hope to explain what a scientific journal is in terms a non-academic can understand. While the content of these journals can be complicated, the core concept of these journals is pretty easy to grasp.
What is a Scientific Journal?
We’ll begin by answering the core question in broad terms. A scientific journal is basically a collection of scientific reports written by researchers trying to answer a variety of questions.
A good scientific journal will have a team of people who review the various scientific papers submitted to them to verify their quality. That way the content being published can be relied upon to be a good-faith effort at producing valuable, accurate scientific information.
There are many types of scientific publications, with most focusing on a particular kind of scientific writing. For example, some might focus on medicine or climate science.
While some journals are free, many cost money to access. However one feels about this, it should be noted there are costs involved in running a journal. It also costs money to submit to many journals, ostensibly to cover processing costs.
Journals can get dozens or even hundreds of submissions. Checking over these submissions to verify they are up to a journal’s standards can be a rigorous, time-consuming process.
Are These Journals Important?
The unfortunate truth in the United States is that science literacy is somewhat poor. People are often uninterested in learning about science and many get their information from poorly curated, deeply biased places.
Scientific journals are not without their bias but good journals can be relied upon to practice some true rigor in what they publish. This makes them hugely valuable to both academics and curious non-academics too.
Saying the content of a journal is always correct would be misleading; even good journals make mistakes. However, scientific journals are perhaps the single best place to get accurate, up-to-date information on the state of a scientific branch.
These journals are one of the primary ways people like doctors or engineers get the latest on their industry. However, one might argue there is an even bigger reason to consider journals important.
A Cornerstone of Progress
If one were just to look at a single scientific article in a journal, it may seem hyperbolic to call these journals cornerstones of progress. However, scientific research is not something done in isolation.
When a scientist performs an experiment, assuming the experiment was performed with rigor, they learn something. However, nobody else does. For others to learn something, there must first be communication.
This is why scientists publish their findings. While scientific journals aren’t the only place findings can be published, they are by far the most common.
It’s easy to underestimate why this makes these journals so important. What is so great about scientific journals is that it allows researchers to learn from the work of others. In turn, they can build on that work, furthering our knowledge even more.
What’s great is that even when researchers ask questions only for their research to produce disappointing results, it helps the scientific community. Learning what doesn’t work often gives very valuable information for later research.
Research does not have to be exciting to be useful. Often science is a slow march towards progress and journals help prevent us from sliding back through repeating tests or asking questions others have already answered.
The Priorities of Journals
Dr. Kenneth Chien is of the belief journals should be not unlike museums for scientific discovery. Editors curate the content the journal will showcase, highlighting some discoveries and hiding others.
It may seem strange that some scientific research gets buried but that isn’t as sinister as it may sound. While journals aren’t immune to bias or corruption, they also can’t publish everything they’re given. It’s impossible.
Instead, journals have to be cognizant of why they’re publishing (and not publishing) what they are. Some journals do this better than others; it’s a big part of what separates well-respected journals from fringe science scams.
When a scientific journal prioritizes publishing research their experts can verify and which is of value to the scientific community, the scientific world improves.
There is risk to this process; sometimes journals are negligent or even downright deceitful. The bunk Wakefield study is but one famous example (and has since been retracted, although the damage was already done).
However, this isn’t the huge, pervasive problem some think it is. If one sticks to well-respected journals, the bulk of what one reads will be well-thought-out and in good faith.
Errors will tend to be slight and often researchers will acknowledge within a paper the potential problems with their study. Good research is rigorous and less about “winning” or getting fame, and more about asking questions and seeking answers.
Science is the Future
What is a scientific journal? They’re how we progress. They’re a collection of the hard work of scientists, curated by experts who check to make sure it’s performed with rigor and worth publishing.
Is the process perfect? Of course not, no process is. However, these journals are why science is the way it is; they’re why scientists don’t need to test every question in their field personally.
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