Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics
Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

3.3 Producing a scientific paper: science communication as knowledge production and exchange

As with all other communication, the production of science communication does not exist in a social vacuum. It involves norms and conventions that science communicators learn as part of the process of becoming a scientist. As you have seen, in taking on this social role scientists are both motivated and constrained in how they communicate, depending on the content and context of the communication. Indeed, part of the remit of this course is to develop your skills as scientists, to ensure that you obtain the transferable skills that are generally regarded by your peers as acceptable scientific practices. In this way, scientists are taught how to represent their work to other scientists, and this process of representation involves the selection and construction of information into a format acceptable for the chosen outlet.

The most important medium for knowledge production and exchange between scientists is the peer-reviewed academic journal. Publication in this format is crucial in documenting scientific knowledge that is credible and trustworthy. When preparing a paper for submission, scientists choose the information to include in their paper and then structure this in such a way so that it conforms to the requirements of the chosen journal. They are, therefore, constrained in what they can and cannot communicate. So how are scientists motivated to communicate? Overtime, if you are successful in these activities, you will publish articles and become more widely known, gaining a reputation for a particular area of expertise. This, in turn, can lead to others trusting in your skills, e.g. as a scientist and a communicator, thereby increasing your chances to influence these areas. All this is based, primarily, on effective science communication.

Reading

You should now read the following extract from ‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’, by the late immunologist, Sir Peter Medawar. As you read through the extract you should consider the following question: What are the implications for the production of scientific papers that Medawar raises?

Just consider for a moment the traditional form of a scientific paper (incidentally, it is a form which editors themselves often insist upon). The structure of a scientific paper in the biological sciences is something like this. First, there is a section called the ‘introduction’ in which you merely describe the general field in which your scientific talents are going to be exercised, followed by a section called ‘previous work’ in which you concede, more or less graciously, that others have dimly groped towards the fundamental truths that you are now about to expound. Then a section on ‘methods’ – that is OK. Then comes the section called ‘results’. The section called ‘results’ consists of a stream of factual information in which it is considered extremely bad form to discuss the significance of the results you are getting. You have to pretend that your mind is, so to speak, a virgin receptacle, an empty vessel, for information which floods into it from the external world for no reason which you yourself have revealed. You reserve all appraisal of the scientific evidence until the ‘discussion’ section, and in the discussion you adopt the ludicrous pretence of asking yourself if the information you have collected actually means anything; of asking yourself if any general truths are going to emerge from the contemplation of all the evidence you brandished in the section called ‘results’.

Of course, what I am saying is rather an exaggeration, but there is more than a mere element of truth in it. [… ]

So to go back once again to the scientific paper: the scientific paper is a fraud in the sense that it does give a totally misleading narrative of the processes of thought that go into the making of scientific discoveries. The inductive format of the scientific paper should be discarded. The discussion which in the traditional scientific paper goes last should surely come at the beginning. The scientific facts and scientific acts should follow the discussion, and scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted byways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind. What, after all, is the good of scientists reproaching others for their neglect of, or indifference to, the scientific style of thinking they set such great store by, if their own writings show that they themselves have no clear understanding of it?

(Medawar, 1999, pp. 27–8, 30–1)

Medawar's argument has profound implications for the communication of science, both within the scientific community and in wider society. His core argument is that the conventional structure for a scientific paper fails to represent the authentic processes of scientific work adequately; the ‘messy’ thought experiments that lead a scientist to conduct one experiment before another, and to one line of investigation rather than another; thought processes that will be influenced by a scientist's prior knowledge and experiences. In this way, Medawar argues that, through practising the norms and conventions of science communication, scientists are misrepresenting the processes of science because they remove the scientist's input, i.e. the human element.

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