The Short History of Publishing a Scientific Paper

By Dr Jean Holley, school liaison, booking officer AND scientist

Have you ever wondered what scientists do after they have finished an experiment?

How do they communicate their conclusions to other scientists around the world?

One of the most important ways that scientific ideas are shared between scientists is by peer reviewed publication in scientific journals. But what does that mean? How do you publish in a scientific journal, and what is peer review?

Here’s a step by step guide to what I (Dr Jean Holley) do once I’ve finished an experiment. I’ll use some of my dung beetle research as an example (any excuse to talk about the fabulous world of poo and beetles!).

1. Some background on dung beetles – just so you’re all with me.

Dung beetles eat the poop of other animals, and use it to brood their young. Adult beetles bury, or roll away chunks of manure and fashion it into lumps or balls called broods. They lay their eggs inside these broods. Beetle larvae hatch out of their eggs and complete their larval develop inside their broods, feeding on the dung that their parents have provisioned for them. The feeding and breeding behaviour of dung beetles removes dung from pastures, recycles nutrients, and improves air and water movement through the soil.

Why do I care?

I care about the effect that our warming climate has on dung beetles biology, and their ability to bury manure. To investigate this, I ran an experiment where I collected dung beetles and kept them in either warmed conditions, or ambient temperature. To assess the effect of warming on beetles, I measured things like beetle survival, and how much they dung buried. My data showed that adult beetles made fewer broods and buried less dung in a warmer environment, which may have implications for how dung beetles will fare under climate change.

2. Now what?

OK, so I have done my experiment, have some good data. Now what? How do I get my data out to other scientists so we can collectively put together a picture of what will happen to insects (and more broadly ecosystems) under climate warming?

I prepare a manuscript – essentially a story about my experiment – which explains why we did the research, how we performed the experiments, a summary of the data and results, and the implications of our results and conclusions that we have made. Once this manuscript is written, we submit it manuscript to a scientific journal for consideration to publish. It’s important to note that scientific papers are not published automatically. Furthermore, which journal to submit to will depend on several things like the aims and scope of the journal (e.g. what topics/geographic areas/methodologies does the journal cover), and how novel the research is. For example, if the research is ground-breaking, or has far reaching implications, researchers might send it to one of the most widely read scientific journals, Nature.

So back to our dung beetle manuscript. If the manuscript is deemed to fit in with the journals aims and scopes, it is then sent out for peer review. Peer review means at least two independent colleagues, and experts in the field, read the paper to decide if the science is sufficiently rigorous and relevant for publication in the journal. Reviewers consider, among many other things, the following:

  • Whether experiments were appropriate to answer the question,
  • If the data was collected in a rigorous and suitable manner, and using methodology,
  • If there was adequate replication in the experiments,
  • The data analysis – did the researcher use suitable statistical procedures or not,
  • If the conclusions are supported by the data,
  • If the aims of the experiment are framed properly within the wider literature,
  • Whether all sources of error had been considered and accounted for.

3. The report

The reviewers will then prepare a report on the manuscript, where they will outline any concerns they have, and suggest improvements. Ultimately the reviewers can accept or reject the manuscript for publication. Typically there will be some revision of the work before publication, and authors must carefully consider and respond to all of the reviewer’s comments, and review/rewrite the manuscript accordingly. Required changes to the manuscript can vary from adding in extra background information, re-analysing the data using more appropriate statistical analyses, and running extra experiments to further strengthen the data and conclusions. If the authors disagree with a reviewer, they can explain why they disagree when responding to the reviewer comments.

4. Getting thick skin

Sounds pretty full on doesn’t it. It doesn’t stop there! There begins the backing and forwarding between researchers, reviewers and journal editors until everyone agrees that the science is of high enough quality, and answers the questions sufficiently, to be published. Our research will now be out there in the scientific community for other scientists to read and use, but often rejection at the first step is the outcome. It goes a long way to growing a thick skin, and reflecting on the importance of constructive and critical feedback and discussion. The gruelling process has persisted for so long because scientists around the world agree that it is the best way to ensure that published articles are scientifically sound and robust, and to facilitate debate and the sharing of ideas.

A valuable process – the importance of feedback 

I believe that peer review is an incredibly valuable and satisfying process. It is fantastic feeling when you get that email to tell you that your article has been accepted! That you have contributed to our global understanding of the world around us.

Feedback is invaluable, and this is also true in my role as a UNE Discovery Voyager facilitator, where I have encountered my toughest critics yet: the unreserved and honest voices of children. And they are the experts on their own experiences. Who better to give me instantaneous feedback on what is working and what isn’t, what they enjoy, and what they understand. During a session, I am constantly gauging student’s engagement and understanding, and adjusting my language and approach to ensure that students get the most out of a session. I do my absolute best to foster student’s confidence and curiosity by encouraging them to explore and ask questions.

We always welcome feedback from students, teachers, parents and academics, either during Discovery Voyager activities, after visits or through our online survey. Feedback is how we learn and grow, both as individual facilitators and as a program as a whole. As facilitators we are constantly monitoring student engagement and adjusting accordingly during a session. As a team, we will go through and discuss feedback from students and teachers and think deeply on how we can improve our approach, tweak our activities and continue with things that are working well.

So the next time we visit your school, please let us know what you think works well, and don’t be shy about giving us your thoughts on things that we could do better. This is how we improve our offerings in STEAM in northern NSW schools, and we value you as our peer reviewers.