Understanding how scientists work can show another side of the story and may affect how you cover it.
After analysing their results, scientists will determine whether the new evidence supports their hypothesis and write up preliminary findings. The answer, which may eventually be reported in the form of a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal, will add to a growing body of evidence but will rarely be conclusive on its own.
How does the peer review system work, and why is it important?
Scientists spend a lot of time writing up, revising and publishing their research. It’s an extremely important part of the scientific process, because it allows other scientists to offer feedback and test the research for themselves to verify its accuracy. Publishing is also an important measure of output for many scientists.
Before a study can be published in a reputable journal, it must be peer reviewed. In a process which can last months, the study is sent to scientists working in the same field, who are best positioned to decide whether the methods used were appropriate and the conclusions make sense.
These ‘peer reviewers’ offer journal editors advice on the quality of the paper, whether or not it should be published and what changes should be made if it is to be published.
In some fields, researchers may publish their preliminary findings and drafts on a ‘preprint’ server such as arXiv.org or bioRxiv.org. Use caution in reporting on preprint papers, as they have not been through peer review.
While peer review acts as an internal check on the quality of research, it isn’t infallible. There is potential for bias among reviewers and not all mistakes are identified. Peer review is based on trust that the data are real and cannot identify fraudulent results.
The evaluation of research doesn’t end after peer review. Once published, a study may receive further critique from other scientists through letters to the editor of the journal, commentary articles or further research attempting to replicate the finding of the original study — science is an ongoing process.
We recommend that, wherever possible, journalists ask for and read the full research article when reporting on a new study.
Not every new study comes with a handy press release and not every press release tells the full story. Being able to read an original research article offers journalists deeper insight and can unearth hidden gems.
Here are some tips to help you navigate the sometimes complex content of research articles.
- Read the abstract (summary) carefully then skim the whole article first to get a ‘big picture’ view of the study – focus on the introduction and conclusions.
- Take a closer look and figure out what problem the study is trying to solve. Look up any unfamiliar terms or concepts to help cut through jargon.
- When reading the results and discussion section, identify the key findings the authors think are most important.
- Check if the authors make any recommendations (e.g. for doctors, government or the general public) based on their conclusions.
- Make a note of any funding sources or any conflicts of interest. This information is often left out of press material but can have an important bearing on how you report on the study.