As scientists or former scientists, we keep telling people that they should get information from “reliable sources”, i.e. scientific studies, manuals, whatever comes from the scientific community. We keep saying it also when it comes to cosmetics and DIY.
But at some point I realized that only those who had anything to do with research and science actually know what are papers, where can you find them and how the whole publication system works. The “normal” people have (rightfully) no clue of what is a scientific paper and how is it different from an article in a newspaper.
Therefore I decided to write this little guide for non-scientists about scientific literature. I will tell you something about the scientific publication system (spoiler: it’s an awful and unfair world) and about the type of literature that you can find online.
Who does research?
Let’s start with the first question: who are the people who do research and write scientific literature?
Researchers can be either academics or industrial researchers. Academics are researchers working for either the universities or public research centers. Most of their fundings are public – yes, paid with your taxes, too – and the concept at the basis of academic research is that it is for the community and that it is free, i.e. not biased by commercial interest.
Industrial researchers are scientists working in the research & development department of a company. Their primary goal is not publishing papers, but sometimes they do publish their results on scientific journals just like academics.
Academics typically publish their results on scientific journals, whereas the work of industrial researchers is easier to find in patent literature (more on that later). As said, they sometimes publish on journals, too, but whatever they publish on a journal is most likely already available to the public through a patent document.
Scientific journals are the places where (mostly academic) scientists publish the results of their studies and sometimes articles summarizing the state of the art of a certain field.
There are different publisher groups, each one having a portfolio of different journals. Each journal is specialized in a certain field of research, although there are both journals extremely specialized (for example in cell biology, polymer chemistry, plant biology, etc.) and journals whose scope is rather broad and they aim at publishing important developments in different fields (like Nature and Science, but not only).
Not all scientific journals have the same importance and “fame”. Some journals are famous also within the public – like Nature and Science. It’s not trivial to say that a study is is of a better quality than another one depending on the journal: the quality of a scientific study does not always depend on where it was published, but it rather depends on how well the study is structured and how the data are presented, elaborated and interpreted.
Scientists traditionally use the “impact factor” as a guideline to judge journals – and at the beginning they make the mistake of judging papers consequently. The impact factor is a number that is given to each journal and that has actually not much to do with the quality of the papers that are published in that journal. It depends, among other things, from the number of citations that the journal receives. This can, to some extent, give an idea of the quality of the papers, but it’s really not all that matters.
There are plenty of very good and reliable studies published in “little” journals with an IF of 4, and plenty of studies that ended up on Nature (IF 42.7) and everyone is wondering HOW did it happen (Turns out that the last name of the paper is an important guy and that the field of research was trendy at the time).
Because yes: getting a paper published on a high impact factor journal has only partially to do with the quality of your research. Sure, the quality and the results are important, but so are the author names (in particular the last one*) and how trendy the topic is.
*The order of the author names on a paper is sometimes random or alphabetical (it depends on the university or research center’s policy), but in most cases it has a specific meaning and somehow reflects the grade of contribution of each author to the study. The most important names are the first one and the last one: the first one is the PhD student or the Post-Doc who did the whole work, the last one is the head of the research group. Sometimes the first name is shared by the first and the second guy on the list, meaning that they worked 50-50 together on that study.
Types of scientific articles
There are mainly two types of scientific articles.
- Research articles (papers): these articles present the results of a study. Typically they introduce the field and the problem at the base of the study in the introduction, they briefly “spoiler” what they are going to do in the study, they explain in details the materials used and the methods of the experiments (so that anyone can replicate the experiments), and then they show and discuss the results.
- Reviews: this kind of publication is a summary of what is going on in a specific field. The authors of reviews read a lot of research articles and put them all together to discuss what has been done, what is currently being done, and what is there to be discovered in a certain specific field. Reviews are a pain to write, but they are of inestimable values for anyone doing research on a certain field, because they allow researchers to find relevant research articles of their field (basically, someone else does the search for them). They also are the holy grail for those writing their Master or PhD thesis.
How is a study published?
When researchers have collected enough data on a part of a project, at some point they decide to publish their results on a journal. In principle, this is done such that the scientific community can get access to what is going on in the field and be informed on the latest development – because science is everyone’s property.
In reality, most academic researchers publish because they have to do it in order to go on with their career. PhD students have the desperate need to publish first-name articles, in order to get their PhD; Post-Doc researchers also have the desperate need to publish first-name articles (and possibly slide towards the last-name position) to have as many relevant papers as they can on their CV and hopefully get a permanent position someday. Even professors and permanent researchers have the need to publish their data, because they need to use the papers as backup to support their request for fundings and win grants.
Once researchers have enough data, the first-name author typically drafts the paper, that gets then corrected and revised by the other authors. When they are done, the so-called manuscript is sent to a scientific journal. Especially when the first submission is to a high-impact factor journal, it is almost expected that the paper will be rejected directly by the editors – and often the editor doesn’t even read it.
If the editor takes a look at it and decides that it can fit in their journal, the paper enters the peer-review system: it will be sent to two, three, four (sometimes even more if you’re unlucky) reviewers that will judge the paper in a very impartial way and surely without vomiting all their frustrations on the paper they have to review (LOL, joking). Reviewers are chosen among other researchers (the peers) of the same field and typically are anonymous to the paper’s author, otherwise the statistics of murders among competitor researchers would go crazy. In some cases they know who the author is, in other cases the review system is double-blinded – thank God!
After some weeks, reviewers send their report to the editor, saying if they think the paper should be published as it is or after additional revision/experiments or if it really sucks and has no chance.
After the revision (that can require additional experiments and major changes in the paper), finally the editor will decide what to do. Will he reward the efforts of the authors who did all the 5678 new experiments required by Reviewer 2, or will he reject the paper after months of revision? Who knows.
At some point, the paper will find an editor that is willing to publish it after the revision, and the paper will be finally published on the journal and available to the public.
Are scientific papers really available to the public?
In principle, they are. Nothing forbids you to read a scientific paper, even if you are not a scientist.
However, they are never really for free and this is one of the many awful things about the scientific publication system.
From this perspective there are two types of journals: those that require a subscription and the open access ones.
The journals that require a subscription are not available for free. You have to pay either a subscription to have access to all their issues, or a fee for every single paper you want to read. The fee for a single paper can vary, the last one I saw was around 40$. Yes, 40$ for a paper that has been published on an online journal and that discloses the results of research that most probably has been funded with public money.
But don’t be mad at scientists for this: trust me, scientist would want everyone – especially the public – to read their papers. They really do it to show to the public and to their peers what is being done for them. That’s why many researchers upload their full text articles on Researchgate, a sort of social network for scientists where you can link or upload your work. The problem is not the scientists, it is the publishers and the whole publishing system.
On the other hand, open access journals can be accessed by anyone for free. That’s great, no? It means that not all publishers are shit! Why the hell don’t all researchers publish there?
Well, you may have access to a publication of an open access journal, but I have to tell you that in order to publish there, researchers have to pay a fee. This fee can go up to thousands of dollars per publication.
So yes, open access journals are free for you but not for the authors, and that’s why not all papers end up in open access journals. Sometimes research groups just don’t have enough money for that.
I believe that the fact that scientific literature is not really for free and accessible by anyone is one of the worse things about the whole publishing system. The fact that the public does not really have access to scientific development has a lot of consequences, and we can see it if we consider how hostile the public can be towards scientists. If you are a researcher, you may say that the unfairness of editors and reviewers is the big problem, but I think that science should be first of all available to everyone interested.
Where to find scientific articles
There are several platforms through which you can find research articles and reviews. Of course, if you are interested in a specific journal, like Nature, you can find all the articles in their website.
If instead you just want to look for papers on a certain subject, the easiest platforms you could use are Google Scholar and Pubmed. You just have to search for the keywords you’re interested in, and you will get lists of titles of papers that may interest you.
However, as you read above, most articles are not for free. For having access to the articles, you can copy the DOI number (a number typical of each paper that you can find when you search for a paper on Scholar) and paste it in the search bar of the wonderful Sci Hub, that will get the PDF for you. Just google Sci Hub and you will find the currently working address (unfortunately the publishers don’t like what they do, and the website gets regularly shut down).
If you are interested in physics papers, you can also take a look at the ArXiv, where physicists dump their manuscripts before sending them to the journals.
There is another kind of scientific literature, that is a bit more boring to read but can be very useful especially in fields like cosmetics, where very few articles are published and are not biased studies funded by companies.
That’s the world of patents. I kind of ignored patent literature when I was a researcher, like almost all academics, and I found out how valuable they can be only once I dropped out of research and started my formation as patent attorney.
The good thing about patents is that they are accessible by the public by definition. A patent gives the proprietor the right to forbid others to exploit their invention; in return, however, they must disclose their invention to the public.
Don’t think of “inventions” as the groundbreaking marvelous thing that will solve the problems of the Earth: an invention can also be a new formulation of a cream, to some extent. The concept of what is inventive is rather a legal concept and therefore some things can be patented even if the public would not see them as groundbreaking inventions.
That’s why patents can be valuable to those interested in cosmetic formulation or in pharmaceutical preparations like tablets, capsules, etc.
In a patent or in a patent application you won’t find the whole story of the field and all the bullshit about how great the study is; you also won’t find tons of experiments and discussion about the statistical data. You will only read the description of the invention (for example, the cosmetic formula).
Where to find patents and patent applications
If you just want to search by keywords, you can find everything you want on Google Patents. I believe it is the most user-friendly platform also for those not working in the patent field. Other platforms are Espacenet, the European Patent Register and of course the Registers of each national patent office. But I suggest you just to use Google Patents: you’ll find everything you want and even if they’re Japanese, Korean, Chinese, or Russian patents they will be automatically translated for you.