|MadSci Network: Other|
Publication is the way that scientists communicate their findings with the rest of the world, but more importantly, the process of publication gives the scientist feedback on his or her work. There is a long process to get a paper published:
After doing several experiments, you write a paper covering all of the data collected and explaining your interpretations of the data. Then you send the final draft of your paper to the journal of your choice (where you send the paper has a big effect on whether your paper is published, and who reads it).
Soon after the paper arrives at the journal, the editors send copies of the paper out to two or more reviewers. It is the reviewers' job to carefully examine the paper for correct interpretation of the data, correct experimental procedure, and relevance of the data to your field (i.e. is this something new, or are you simply showing something that has already been shown by someone else). The reviewers summarize their comments and criticisms in letters which are sent back to the editors, who read the paper and the reviews and decide whether to publish the paper.
If the paper is very good, it is accepted for publication. Most papers that get published are "accepted with revisions", meaning that several points made by the reviewers had to be addressed by the author before the paper would be published. This often means doing a few extra experiments to prove an unclear point in the paper.
Many papers are rejected on the grounds of not having enough new data. When this happens, the scientist must either do much more work and resubmit the paper to the same journal, or try submitting the paper to another journal that may be more interested in the results. It is not easy getting into the more prestigious journals, so most scientific papers go to journals that are specific to the authors' field, having a much smaller readership.
Publication is vital to a scientist's career for two reasons: first, when Universities are looking for new professors, they base their decision on the amount of important papers the candidates have published; and second, research costs money, and the people who give a scientist the money to do his or her work rely on their publications as a measure of how much they have accomplished with the money they've been given (this is especially important if you want to continue to be funded by the same people year after year).
Publication is also vital to science as a whole. One of the cornerstones of the scientific process is the free exchange of information. As long as everyone publishes their results, Science progresses foreward: if someone publishes a new finding, other scientists can use that information to expand their own work and build upon the new findings, rather than every scientist having to do every experiment independently. Similarly, publication is essential for each scientist, because the review process gives the researcher a broader view of the work, and often suggests fruitful paths that the scientist may not have otherwise taken.
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