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INSIGHTS ON READING SCIENTIFIC ARTICLES



The following article by Alan Northcutt appeared in the November 9, 2021 edition of the Waco Tribune Herald.  

The rejection of evolution science by some is longstanding in the United States, commonly fueled by religious beliefs.  However, in recent years the anti-science movement has taken a dangerous turn, in its rejection of climate and COVID -pandemic science.  Although the causes of anti-science attitudes are many, limited understanding of scientific writing is a common factor.  The following are insights for approaching scientific writing that will help combat the anti-science movement.

The peer-reviewed literature is the foundation of scientific knowledge.  The peer-reviewed literature is the gold standard for scientific knowledge, embodied in hundreds of journals that represent essentially every field of study, from the Annals of Internal Medicine to Zoology.  These journals are respected and trusted because of the peer-review process. Research papers submitted to the journals are first intensely critiqued by 3 or more experts in the relevant specialty.  The paper is then either rejected, accepted subject to proper revision, or fully accepted. From personal experience with a dozen peer-reviewed publications, I can verify that the review and revision process is meticulous and brutal.  Fortunately, these journals may be accessed by anyone through search engines such as Google Scholar and PubMed. All scientific articles begin with a summary, termed the “abstract,” which is available at no cost.  Some even include a “plain language” version of the abstract, useful when the primary abstract contains difficult technical language.  Reading the complete text of the article will require subscription or payment, unless the article is “open access.”  The peer-reviewed literature thus adds new knowledge and advances scientific fields, while providing reliable information for the general public.

Newspapers and magazines provide secondary reporting on peer-reviewed research.  Articles in the general press often report on one or more new scientific papers, although the underly primary sources may not be obvious.  In these cases, finding the underlying original scientific paper and reading at least its abstract is recommended. This is important, because the general press article may misunderstand the science, make honest errors, or purposefully misrepresent the science.   If the general press article is online, the link to the peer-reviewed piece is easily recognized as words with different font, color, or underline.  If the article is in print, the original paper may be found through search with author name or keywords.

Never rely solely on headlines or titles.  Since the headline or title of an article is usually not written by the author, it may not contain the author’s key points, may contain errors, and occasionally even contradicts the body of the article.  Reading or scanning the entire article will prevent misunderstanding.  This principle is valid for scientific articles and articles on all subjects, excluding peer-reviewed journals.   

Determine the true background of the author.   The short author’s biography at the beginning or end of an article should be examined with a critical eye and liberal use of Google.  For example, while an author’s affiliation with the “Consumer Energy Alliance” sounded very humanitarian, the Alliance proved to be a front group for fossil fuel corporations.  Carefully investigating an author’s history will help reveal her biases.

The article has probably been edited.  It is important to realize that publications at all levels, including local newspapers, edit articles after submission by the author.  Sometimes these are valid edits, related to grammar errors, style issues, and length problems.  But sometimes the change may alter the author’s emphasis or even her meaning.  There is no easy solution for this problem.  If an email address is included, one may initiate a dialogue with the author.  Otherwise, if an article appears wildly incongruous with the author’s usual world view, it is wise to consider that the author’s words were edited and take the piece with a grain of salt.

All writing is not created equal.  Finally, one of the most frequent errors in reading scientific papers is giving equal credence to informal unreviewed articles and to peer-reviewed research.  For example, some may give equal weight to an opinion column on hurricanes by political scientist Marc Morano on his website, and to a peer-reviewed research paper on superstorms by atmospheric scientist Dr. Kerry Emanuel in Nature Climate Change.  A proverb to help avoid this mistake:   listen to a congressman’s opinion on your upcoming brain biopsy, but select a board-certified neurosurgeon for the operating room.


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