What Are Scientific Journals?

July 2000

Q: What are scientific journals, and what kinds of articles do they publish?

A: Scientific journals represent the most vital means for disseminating research findings and are usually specialized for different academic disciplines or subdisciplines. Often, the research challenges common assumptions and/or the research data presented in the published scientific literature in order to gain a clearer understanding of the facts and findings. Depending upon the policies of a given journal, articles may include reports of original research, re-analyses of others’ research, reviews of the literature in a specific area, proposals of new but untested theories, or opinion pieces.

Q: How is a manuscript evaluated for publication in a scientific journal?

A: A manuscript is first submitted to a journal by the author(s) for potential publication. Authors carefully select a journal based upon the content of their article and the intended audience. The editor determines whether the manuscript is within the editorial domain of the journal and appears to be an appropriate submission. On average, over 97% of submissions to journals published by the American Psychological Association, for example, are referred to outside experts for peer review of their merits.

Q: What is peer review?

A: Peer review is a process whereby two or more experts in the relevant topic area evaluate manuscripts for potential publication at the request of the journal editor. Reviewers are carefully selected based on their scientific expertise, research area, and lack of bias toward the authors of a given manuscript. (Manuscripts are often circulated for peer review without their title pages to mask the identity of the authors and eliminate reviewer bias.) The reviewers, who usually remain anonymous, submit their written critiques to the journal editor, including attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, together with editorial suggestions and recommendations. The editor reads the manuscript and the reviewers’ comments to make a determination as to whether the manuscript should be rejected, revised and resubmitted for further review, or accepted. Reviewers are not financially compensated for their work; they often spend between four and 12 hours (depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript) in completing a thoughtful, extensive editorial review, as one of their service contributions to the advancement of science. Journal editors may receive a small stipend.

Q: Why are controversial articles published?

A: Scientific progress results from the free interchange of ideas, which other scientists then support or refute through their own research, analyses, and theories. Oftentimes, controversial views are intentionally published to stimulate further debate and move the field forward to a clearer understanding of the critical issues and relevant variables.

Q: If an article’s methodology and/or conclusions turn out to be inaccurate, how is the scientific literature corrected?

A: Scientists subject published hypotheses to further scrutiny and publish their supportive or opposing conclusions. Commentaries are published about controversial findings, as well as empirical reports, that may contradict or support a hypothesis. In essence, science is a self-correcting, consensus-building enterprise, whereby any serious inaccuracies in an article are identified and the literature corrected through subsequent publications.

Q: Do views expressed in journal articles reflect the position of the editor or association that published them?

A: No, articles published in scientific journals do not represent the positions of the association or publisher. Scientific journals typically include a disclaimer stipulating that opinions and statements contained in the journal are the personal views of the authors and do not constitute association policy or the views of the editor. Any exceptions are indicated in the article or in an editorial footnote. Furthermore, most scientific journal editors function as independent scholars, and they are neither employees nor official or legal representatives of the association or publisher.

Q: What is the appropriate role of scientific journal articles in the development of public policy?

A: Public policy should be based on sound, peer-reviewed scientific research, whenever feasible. Such policy decisions are rightfully grounded in a large, respected body of research in a given area, not on a single study or opinion. The social policy implications of research may not be readily evident to some scientists and journal editors. If readers take issue with the social policy implications of a given article, they may submit written comments to the journal. Depending upon journal policy, such comments may be considered for publication after appropriate review.