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Scientific publications are where results and knowledge derived by science are shared and taught to others in the world. Results are no use to anybody if they are not made available to other experts, to be discussed, critically evaluated and built upon. Consequently, ever since the beginnings of modern science, various forms of publishing have played a central role in the work of researchers who need to be able to present their work intelligibly in written form to have it recognized by their peers. This philosophy of the full disclosure of the fruits of the intellectual work of scientists can sometimes conflict with the interest to protect it against abuse (e.g., patenting of work produced by others, occurrence information of plant species threatened by overexploitation, etc.).
While medieval and renaissance scholars predominantly produced books mostly written in Latin, more diverse venues of publication are available today, but especially articles ("papers") in journals maintained by scientific societies, institutes or commercial publishers now dominate in many fields. In recent decades, continuous and high-quality paper writing has become a key qualification of scientists, and increasing competition can lead to a mentality best described with the saying "publish or perish".
Types of scientifc publications
They are articles published in scientific journals, ranging from a few to at most a few dozen pages. In the natural sciences, research papers have today become the most important means of communicating results. They generally have a very schematic structure, consisting of:
- A short summary of all the relevant information contained within the paper. Abstracts date back to the pre-digital era when people would have to search large volumes of material and needed extremely short summaries of what data is available to make this process efficient. This still applies today when trying to manually refine a search for information. The abstract is often written in an odd passive-present tense, but not always.
- This outlines the state of current research and the context of the research presented. Often it will cover work previously carried out by the same research team and how the new results relate to that. Because the introduction states a lot of background material and little to no original research, it usual contains the bulk of the citations — often to larger "review" papers.
- The experimental section covers materials, methods and explains the procedures used in the paper. This is often full of technical detail, precise spectrometer frequencies, equipment specifications or the origin of materials. Due to the technical nature of these sections, they are sometimes pushed to the back, or rendered in a smaller font, or perhaps moved to the supplementary materials.
- This, in a self-explanatory manner, states the results of experiments or work carried out. Depending on the nature of the work, results may be mixed in with discussion. Results sections can also be split into several parts forming distinct parts of a paper. For example, one section may discuss experimental findings while another looks at computer models to support this.
- If separate from the results, this section puts the results of the research into a larger context, analyzes their significance (or not) and suggests additional studies. Sometimes there is a separate "conclusions" section towards the end of the paper that further summaries the important results and implications.
- In addition to the main authors, who are defined as being responsible for part or the whole of the paper, additional individuals may be thanked for their contributions. These include technical staff or other academics who may have discussed or suggested improvements but did not directly partake in the research.
- Throughout the paper, any statement will be backed up with notes to additional literature. These are stated in a reference section, towards the end of the paper. References do not necessarily come at the end, but may appear as footnotes at the bottom of the page so can be read without flicking to the back page of the paper each time.
Basically a research paper of only two to six pages that presents results of lesser importance.
A journal article that summarize the state of knowledge in a certain field of research by citing all relevant recent studies, without presenting new data of its own.
Scientific journals may also contain letters to the editor, book reviews, or rarely other types of articles.
Presents the state of knowledge in a certain field of science in an easily accessible format. It can be aimed at very different audiences, ranging from school pupils to other professional scientists who may want to use it as a reference for their own university courses.
A collection of abstracts, i.e. short summaries of talks or posters that were presented at a scientific conference, in book form.
A book, the exact scope of which depends on the area of research. Literally, it means a work that aims to present all that is known about a specific subject. In organismal biology, it refers to a thorough taxonomic treatment of all species of a group of organisms.
Flora / fauna / field guide
Books in organismal biology that help to identify the scientific name of plants or animals of a specific region, and provide additional information on the species.
An unreviewed article made available directly by the scientist. They used to be printed on actual paper, available in advance of journal publication, but are now typically put up on arXiv or similar. Quality varies widely. But this is an entirely respectable method of getting the word out quickly (and staking out credit early), and is pretty much the standard way it's done in physics these days. The expectation is that anything that is any good will get a proper write-up with peer review before publication.
Before publication in reputable journals, scientific articles are generally sent out to two or more reviewers or referees from the same field of research to examine the quality of the paper. Based on the recommendations of these referees, the editor of the journal can then decide to reject a paper, require specific changes from the author(s) before publication, or accept it as is, although that rarely happens. Reputable textbook publishers will employ reviewers and editors in a comparable fashion.
Comparison of publication venues
The prestige that is connected with different types of publications, e.g. book vs. article, differs between research fields, partly because of tradition, but partly because of the type of research that is conducted. Books are relatively hard to assess except by relying on the opinion of qualified colleagues. To be able to differentiate between more or less respectable journals, a number of criteria is usually employed:
- Does the journal practice peer review, and if yes, how stringent is it? Journals not practicing peer review are generally considered to be unreliable sources, and scientists predominantly publishing in them will not be taken seriously by their colleagues.
- How long does it take from submission of a manuscript to publication (if accepted)? A time-inefficient review process can severely discourage scientists to submit interesting results, hurting the journal's prestige.
- Which company or institution is the publisher?
- Does the editorial board consist of highly qualified and renowned scientists?
- How many other scientists read the journal and cite articles from it? For many important journals, the latter information is calculated as the impact factor.