Only after the careful and rigorous application of the scientific method can we begin to develop an accurate understanding of the world around us. As this understanding grows, part of your responsibility as a scientist is to share this understanding with other scientists. This serves two equally important purposes. First, to grow humanity’s collective pool of knowledge. The human hunger for enlightenment is insatiable and must be constantly fed; otherwise we get The Dark Ages. From this common pool we develop technologies, produce advances in medicine, and develop a better understanding of the world we live in. Second, to allow other scientists the opportunity to validate your contributions. An experimental process and the conclusions derived from its data must survive the scrutiny of other scientists in order to be added to the collective. This process is called “peer review.” Science that is not peer reviewed, or does not survive the peer review process, is not retained in the collective. For example, the ideas and hypotheses that compose the theory of evolution have been tested, retested, and upheld in a countless number of ingenious experiments by an equal number of talented scientists over the last 150 years to produce our current, accepted understanding of this process. In contrast, the 1998 publication of an experiment that showed a link between the development of autism and childhood vaccinations has never been duplicated despite a vigorous effort to do so. The original publication was found to be so littered with experimental design flaws, manufactured data, and researcher bias and conflicts of interest that it has since been retracted and the lead scientist of the study, a medical doctor from Scotland, was fired from his job and stripped of his license to practice medicine (but not before he misled a surprising number of parents to not vaccinate their children). Science, the scientific process, and peer review is our way of knowing what is truth and what is not.
Science is shared among scientists through several mechanisms. Scientists often attend conferences where they visually present and share their data in oral presentation or poster format with scientists of similar interests. Dr.T attends an International Worm Meeting that meets in Los Angeles every other year to brainstorm with scientists from around the globe that have an unhealthy passion for understanding the biology and genetics of the tiny soil nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Although nothing quite compares to the intellectual stimulation of these conferences, the majority of science is shared through written publications.
When a scientist wants to share their data with other scientists, they typically do not go to Fox News, MSNBC, Reader’s Digest, or the NY Times; they publish them in written form. Scientific publications can be classified into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
Primary sources are original materials. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information. They are current at the time of their publication. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. Material published as primary sources have undergone rigorous peer review by other scientists in the same field of study. Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the structure of