A journal article is a formal write-up of a scientific experiment. Sometimes a journal article is simply called “a paper.” A journal is like a magazine of scientific studies, which comes out regularly such as monthly or bimonthly. There are thousands of journals for all types of science. When a news article says “a published study” this is what they are referring to.
Scientific studies can’t usually be found using regular search engines. They are found using scientific search engines and databases. The most popular one that anyone can use is called Google Scholar. Check it out!
Not all journals have the same high standards, but most of have at least some strictness. All journal articles go through a “peer review” process, so they tend to be more reliable than a news article.
The unfortunate thing about journal articles is that they are often written in a technical language only understood clearly by people who have studied that subject for a long time. Sciworthy translates these papers into a language that can be understood by people who aren’t experts in that field, to make science more transparent and accessible.
In many cases, you also have to pay a journal subscription fee to read the full paper. If you are a student, your school library might pay these fees for you. But most of us are out of luck. The abstract (a short summary of the paper) is the only part that is free. While some journals are open access (the full text is free), the researchers often have to pay thousands of dollars to publish in those journals.
Sciworthy’s writers are graduate students and scientists, who work at institutions who pay for subscriptions to full text articles. We translate them here so that you can read about research that is otherwise not affordable for just anyone to access, or would violate copyright laws if we posted the original text.
When a study undergoes peer review, it means that 2-3 experts in the field have to carefully read the paper to make sure that the study is done properly. They look for sound scientific reasoning, appropriate data analysis methods, conclusions that accurately reflect the data, good experimental design, and more.
The reviewers will also say if the paper is valuable to the field, if it is original, and if it has adequately accounted for all the previous work done on the subject. This process can take a long time as can scientists argue back and forth for months about the details of a study.
Peer review does not tell you if the results are “true”, “right”, or “correct.” Only time can tell us that. Science is always being revised, and we don’t know if anything is “correct” until decades of studies have been done on a single subject. Even then, something new can overturn decades of data. Typically, the bar for overturning a scientific idea is higher the more data that accumulates in its favor.
Another misconception about peer review is that scientists are softer on popular ideas than on new ideas. This be true at times, only because the bar is high when trying to present something radically new. But the truth is, scientists love to find mistakes in papers and relish at pointing them out. It is part of the job. All ideas are scrutinized and picked apart whether they are mundane or shocking.
Peer review is also not perfectly consistent. Different reviewers can have different viewpoints. Therefore, no scientific study is edited in exactly the same way. This is a downside to peer review that all scientists are aware of and we do our best to keep it in check. For example, a paper can be retracted, or taken out of a journal, if the error is bad enough. For less serious errors, scientists can also submit responses and corrections to papers, which are also peer reviewed.
We understand that removing 100% of political bias is probably impossible, because writers are human and everyone comes from somewhere. But, our awareness of our bias underscores our commitment to minimize it.
Owen Schaefer from the University of Oxford explains our position in Practical Ethics better than we could.
“First, biases not only change the tone of reporting but distort people’s understanding of the empirical facts. The research by Dan Kahan and colleagues . . . confirms just this – people will process information in such a way that supports their prior political views. Journalists who embrace bias will fall prey to the same problems – discounting disconfirming evidence, overemphasizing confirming evidence, framing issues in ways that support their positions, and so on. What’s more, having ideologically-driven outlets will facilitate people’s ability to selectively patronize only outlets of their political leanings, further exacerbating confirmation bias. So bias subverts the laudable goal of making people more informed (the ostensible goal of reporting).”
Sciworthy is technically not news or journalism. We don’t interview sources, we don’t look for a particular story. We simply translate technical papers into a language that non-experts in that field can understand so they can assess the results for themselves. We trust our readers to make up their own minds.