What are Scientific Journals?

Disinformation is at an all-time high, and people are looking for ways to get the “truth.” One place they may find it is by going to accounts of original research in scientific journals.

So what are scientific journals and how can they help people combat disinformation? Unlike fake news memes that spout a fact and get shared on Twitter, scientific journals contain papers describing original research.

Each of these papers explains all of the steps of the research and argues its validity. Those who wish to criticize the findings must respond to each part of the process. They must explain why they think it is valid or invalid.

What Are Scientific Journals?

Scientific journals are more than your average periodical or magazine. They contain original research papers with supporting details. These explain why scientists draw the conclusions they do regarding a specific topic.

The research in scientific journals is often in dialogue with research that came before it. For instance, a researcher may do a study on the link between eating any berries and getting dental cavities.

A year later, another researcher may publish a response paper. They looked at eating blueberries versus strawberries. Their research details the effect on getting dental cavities, too.

Reading scientific journals can be useful to find one-time facts. But it is also helpful to track the dialogue of research over the years when learning about a specific topic.

Papers in scientific journals may include some of the following features:

Research Design

A big component to conducting and publishing valid research is excellent research design. This kind of design should have appropriate sample sizes, demonstrate statistical significance in findings, and account for researchers’ personal biases.

Research with a poor design should not pass peer review.

Peer Review

Peer review is the process of vetting research before publication. Journal reviewers get copies of a research study or paper. Each reviewer must consider the research design, the importance of the findings, and the ethical conduct of the researcher.

Scientific journals use peer review to get a consensus on the validity of new research.

Retractions

Scientific journals go to great lengths to vet research design. They put papers under intensive peer review. But sometimes they get it wrong.

Research is more tenuous than most people think. Good researchers accept challenges to their work and investigate new evidence as it arises.

In the case that research is later challenged by new evidence or shown to be false in some other way, a scientific journal issues a retraction. In this, it will explain why the retraction has been issued and reposition itself regarding the topic of the research.

A famous case of this is The Lancet‘s retraction of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s faulty case study that linked vaccines to autism. After 12 years and further investigative research, The Lancet issued a definitive retraction. They hoped to stem the tide of misinformation that extended from Wakefield’s research.

Seeing retractions in scientific journals should increase readers’ confidence in the journal rather than reduce it. Retractions mean a journal is open to new perspectives and criticism. Rather than standing by old, poor information, they are willing to embrace new ideas as they come to light.

Using Scientific Journals For Education

Students—particularly those in social and hard sciences—are encouraged to use scientific journals for research. This may begin on day one in their tertiary education. Professors encourage them to stop engaging with summaries and start going to the source of research.

Working with primary sources gives the most unambiguous description of a topic. Original research provides the clearest answers without the slant often included in summaries.

Going straight to journals also prepares students for further professional work. Jobs may require that they cite original research. Learning to navigate journals as an undergraduate versus a professional is ideal.

Using Scientific Journals on the Job

Anyone who needs excellent, primary resources may consult scientific journals on the job. This could extend from pharmaceutical researchers looking for new medical findings to magazine writers covering new discoveries in space.

Dr. Kenneth Chien is a doctor specializing in cardiovascular medicine. He wants his colleagues and others accessing scientific journals to treat them as a place for discovery.

Where to Find Scientific Journals and Articles

Students and professionals who need to access scientific journals may have a subscription to databases of journals via their institution.

But what if you don’t have access to a database of scientific journals and can’t afford to subscribe to them? There is a way to get primary research and original papers for free: ask.

Many researchers are happy to respond to reasonable requests for a copy of their research. If you find a scientific journal article behind a paywall, email the authors and see if they are willing to provide you with a copy for free. This is at their discretion and a great way to access primary sources.

How to Read Scientific Journals as an Amateur

If you feel a little intimidated tackling reading scientific journal articles, you’re not alone. These types of articles follow a very specific format. It is common among the scientific community, but may feel foreign to the average reader.

Make it easy on yourself and look for the headings that can direct you to the information itself.

The “abstract” or “introduction” tells you what the scientific study or research was looking for. It may include a very clear hypothesis, such as, “Eating strawberries encourages dental cavities.”

If you’re wondering about research methods, then turn to the “methods” section. This will give you details including sample size, if the study was double-blind, and more.

Want to cut to the chase and find out what they discovered? The “results” section summarizes the gist of the research.

Access Original Research

Now that you know the answer to “What are scientific journals?”, you also know how to find and use these items. Access original research to strengthen your own understanding of scientific results.

Learn more about primary sources and scientific journals in our other science articles.

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