'Even among the greatest of scientists, there is discourse as to whom originated the idea'
When we talk about research, we often talk about its effects in terms of the benefits and traditions that have improved the generation of knowledge as well as the numerous technological advancements it has provided for society. Everyone knows of WiFi and the microprocessor as inventions that have changed society tenfold, though few are cognizant of their origins as science laboratory projects and engineering endeavours. What isn't much examined in media or communicated outside of research/academia are the mechanisms and processes that projects undergo starting from their conception and ending with the generation of new knowledge. Many non-academics would have the thought that research is an entirely singular venture, not laden with the kind of obstacles that to them ordinary professions have to face. This is anything but the truth, in fact much research especially interdisciplinary studies are dictated by factors effecting their quality and throughput. Authorship can also become a highly contentious subject depending on topic and field, even among the greatest scientists of our age there has been significant discourse over whom an idea originates from as well as the number of people involved in the creation of new knowledge. This can lead to many if not more barriers to completing a project than may be faced in other professions (however such sharing of ideas more often than not provides greater context for good research to flourish). Hopefully in future posts I can elucidate these factors in more detail, providing a forum for further discussion of research in the context of the hurdles scientists must face together in their selected disciplines as well as what there research means to other communities. For now I would like to discuss one particular aspect of research that few consider outside the confines of their own studies, and this is the fidelity of research papers.
First a bit of background on how we publish and cement new findings in the scientific and academic communities. Knowledge is typically conveyed in the form of research papers, these are published works from investigators in either a procedural(s) or as peer-reviewed journal articles. What is often called 'peer-reviewed' refers to the practice of validating the quality of an article based on the writing, input and outcomes of the project(s) undertaken or examined in the paper. This can include the impact of the research on the literature as a whole or as part of a field of study. These types of reviews are undertaken by experts in the field the paper is submitted to or topic covered. With these safe guards in place to filter out poor quality or highly contentious materials from the larger body of scientific knowledge, you would expect that most papers currently published are of sufficient quality, with very few to none carrying bad or fallacious arguments, Right? Well no, not really. In truth many papers are published even in the most highly regarded journals that do not follow the conventions laid out by the publisher or even by the standards of the field of study.
Recently a post on twitter was made by Retraction Watch about a study published in Clinical Cancer Research, a well regarded journal, having to pull the paper due to manipulation of figures by the authors. You can find the full article here. In most cases this kind of practice is not detected by journals or those reviewing the articles, because most of the falsified data can be very subtle or not easily recognized depending on the scope of the research as well as the expertise of the examiners scrutinizing the material. What happens over time is the slow build up of what we in the academic community call "junk science". These materials can undermine the contributions that a given scientific field has on society as well as the potential to destroy the reputation of leading organisations and individuals in any given field of research. The worst kind of misrepresentation that can occur from this type of materials is that used by commercial or other interest groups as either PR or justification for misconduct (particularly where research data is deliberately falsified in exchange for some kind of bribe).
Where this becomes complicated is when research that is not sufficiently scrutinized or safeguards are not adequate for preventing bad practice in science gets public attention in it's favour, typically in the media. Having a more scientifically literate society is valuable and therefore in these cases much more important specifically for the prevention of misinformation. This is the purpose of BLab Coats and by extension BLog Coats as a medium to whom discussion and knowledge can be shared openly with the benefit of having experts from many different fields converse about their practices and the state of research; where it is now and where it is going.
For the moment I would like to thank anyone who took the time to read though all of this, though not many points were made I am hoping to be constructing a series of articles on this topic, with this as a foreword to those articles. I have not yet decided on a name, nor on which aspect of research as a culture and research as a profession will be examined first, so please stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks.
Thank you and keep BLabbing
Website Manager, Graphics Design
B.Sc (Chemistry), MRes in "Characterization of Advanced Nanomaterials"
Research Assistant at Clinical Genomics Technologies