This is the second post in my ‘What is a Scientist?’ series. There seems to be a lot of distrust of scientists by a large section of the population. My hope is that sharing some of my perspectives and experiences as a scientist will help build trust.
To understand anything, or anyone, I think that it helps to think about motivating factors. Why did they just give me that free t-shirt? Perhaps they want me to be a walking advertisement. Why did she smile at me? Maybe she enjoys being friendly, and/or is about to ask me for something. Why did our dog just put his chin on my leg? He is probably hungry, smells that I have salmon on my plate, and knows that with him at least I’m a pushover. Etc.! To better understand what it is to be a research scientist (hereafter: scientist), you might ask yourself: why are they pecking away at their computer so much? Publishing, based on my experience, is often perhaps the biggest motivator for scientists.
Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘publish or perish’ regarding an author of some kind. It is a daunting statement, but it does succinctly convey a truth for a scientist: a big part of your job is to make your findings available. If you don’t, then you might lose your job or fail to get one. In order do research, a scientist often has to acquire grant money, some of which their employer uses to fund operations (e.g., to ‘keep the lights on’). Many research-intensive institutions decide whether or not to hire or continue employing a scientist based largely on how much grant money that researcher has acquired. There is a lot of competition, between scientists, for grant money. They write research proposals in order to acquire grant money and a part of the decision about who receives that money is based on the ability of researchers to publish their results, which can be demonstrated by past publications, especially those that have been cited many times and/or have been published in prestigious journals. So, publications can lead to grants, which can lead to more publications, and the cycle is able to continue in the absence of disruption.
Scientific publishing can take a long time even after the hard work of designing a study, collecting data, writing about what you found, and submitting the manuscript to a journal. After a manuscript is submitted, an editor must decide if it seems like it could be a good fit for the journal (each journal has different scopes and levels of prestige). If so, then the manuscript is sent to at least 2, often more, ‘peer reviewers.’ These are other scientists with expertise in the research area that the study focuses on who have volunteered to offer their time to help curate discipline-specific knowledge. Ideally, these usually anonymous peer reviewers will fairly and thoroughly consider everything that you, as a researcher, did in the study to ensure that it is valid and useful before the work is published. They may suggest that your manuscript be rejected, accepted (which is rare without revisions), or that it be edited to address their comments before further consideration. Then the ‘ball is back in the court’ of the researcher(s) who submitted the manuscript. If their manuscript hasn’t been totally rejected, then they will likely get to work on addressing the comments by making changes or thoroughly explaining why a change wasn’t made. Another round of peer review may occur or, if the editor so decides, the manuscript could be accepted or rejected without further peer review. There is more nuance to this whole process, and a lot to say just about who pays for publications, though hopefully this level of explanation has helped you to understand why a scientist might be having a bad (or good) day. Rejections, of course, hurt. And it tends to feel good when articles are accepted.
Especially regarding research results that gain a lot of political attention, I’ve noticed that critics of results will seem to imply that the research team came to this or that conclusion because for some reason that is what they wanted to find. For example, someone on TV might suggest that a study which projected that the average global temperature will be 5 degrees F warmer in 2100 than it is now found that result because of political motivation. The peer review process, though it can be maddening for scientists, is meant to filter out biased and otherwise flawed studies. And, generally, I think this process does a pretty good job at protecting the integrity of science. It is certainly OK to be skeptical of the results of scientific studies, and I think that all good scientists should be until the authors of the study have convinced them via what they wrote not to doubt the results. Rarely (I think) scientific fraud does occur and makes it past peer review, like in this case (story here), but virtually all scientists know that making up data and getting caught will result in the end of their career. I have one other thought about what I’ve noticed people on TV/radio sometimes say. Uninformed and/or compromised commentators often accurately point out that different scientific studies come to different conclusions about the subject of interest (e.g., evolution) and then misleadingly suggest that this proves that the whole scientific process is invalid. In reality, disagreements are a crucial part of science (as for many worthy pursuits) and with time the preponderance of evidence should lead towards the truth, or something near it. Hopefully this provides some reassurance that, though scientific publishing is far from perfect, when done right it can provide valuable information that has been scrutinized and vetted by people very knowledgeable about the topic at hand.
The scrutiny that is inherent in the scientific process, however, can make talking to scientists frustrating to people who don’t understand why scientists are the way that they are. For example, someone might ask a scientist, ‘so, are the cattails good for marsh birds?’ The answer might begin with something like, ‘well, that depends on what species of cattail and marsh birds you are talking about. It also depends on what you mean by good (for reproduction, concealment, food) and how long the cattails have been there…’ Etc. My point here is that often it seems like a scientist isn’t giving you a straight answer when, probably, they are just trying to be careful not to say something that is wrong because they are used to being harshly criticized if they do so during the peer-review process. Personally, I think that there is a time and a place for simplifying answers and we all need to think hard about when to sacrifice accuracy to achieve a degree of accessibility that might inspire someone to dive deeper into a subject themselves.
Please remember that this is just one scientist’s perspective regarding publishing in science. I think it would be great if people commented to offer thoughts and/or constructive criticism about my explanation and so demonstrate how the idea of peer review works! If that doesn’t happen, then at the very least hopefully this has helped you to better understand that special scientist in your life.