Publications Part 1: The what and why of a scientific publication

I’m going to write a series of posts on the black art of scientific publications.  I’m planning a journal based exercise for one of my classes next year and need to provide some information on what journals are and why they are.  I thought the best way to help me think about this was to write some blog posts in an attempt to get the key ideas together.  These are written from the perspective of an academic chemist, and with an educated lay audience in mind.  Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Part 1:  The what and why of a scientific publication

Scientific publications (papers) are the main means through which scientists convey the (usually positive) outcomes of their research work to a wider audience.  Experiments are conducted, results are obtained and generally noted in laboratory notebooks or similar software, and at appropriate points in the research, are written up as publications.  This is similar to the procedure in undergraduate laboratories where students conduct experiments whilst making note of all the details in their lab book, then have to write a laboratory report for assessment.    Scientific publications are published by a number of publishing groups and, as expected, there are many different criteria that a paper must meet in order to be published.  Research that is not published is not available for the wider research community to benefit from.

There are (in chemistry anyway) three main types of paper and the difference between the three reflects the quantity of research work done.  Communications are short, and describe a small quantity of work.  They are designed to be published rapidly, allowing researchers to demonstrate good results quickly.  Communications may also be produced where a larger research project has produced fewer publishable results than anticipated.  Full papers are longer and describe a larger body of research.  Typically there will be multiple authors, and many different experiments conducted.  For really big research projects, there may be multiple full papers produced.  Review articles are usually very long and provide a survey of an area of research.  Typically they include  no new scientific results but may offer different interpretation of work already published as communications or full papers.  Review articles may be written by a researcher who has done a lot of work in a field, as a form of summary of their findings, or by other researchers related to the field.    Review articles are very good if you are trying to quickly understand why a research area is of interest, what work has been done to date in that area, and sometimes what work is still to be done.

The audience for scientific papers varies.  Full papers are generally quite technical and specific to the area of research they are about.  Review articles may be specialist or they may be tutorial – where the authors describe the research in simpler terms for a more general audience.   The audience also depends on which journals the work was published in.  Some are general, accepting only the most innovative work from a wide range of research areas, some are specific, accepting only work in a specific  field.  For example, Journal of the American Chemical Society is a general journal that publishes high quality research and has a broad audience.  Bioconjugate Chemistry is also published by the American Chemical Society but is used by a more specific group of researchers.

Most journals are available as hard copies in printed volumes.   They are also available online and universities must take out annual subscriptions to have access to them.  Most universities also have a scheme where they can pay to access copies of articles that are in journals that they don’t subscribe to.  Sometimes the work being published is too large for the journal and so some of the information is included in supplementary information.  This can generally be found on the journal website.

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