The scientific journal

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Philosophical Transactions, Royal Society, v1, n1, 1661
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  • Updated.jpg 3 February 2016


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"...the medical journal has been used by both clinicians and researchers as the preferred vehicle for keeping up with the latest developments ... The contents of medical journals have been systematically indexed for more than 100 years. The role of the journal in the biomedical communication cycle is self-evident, and that role has been expanded profoundly by automated information retrieval." — Brandon & Hill, 1985

The scientific journal is a serial publication intended to report on the latest research and progress of science. In the 21st century, there are more than ~50,000 scientific and academic journals published worldwide, many of which have been published at various points over the past four hundred years. According to Fraser (2010) in the British Medical Journal, there are "...25,400 scientific journals and this is increasing by 3.5% a year." The most prestigious journal in medicine, The New England Journal of Medicine, began to publish research and other information in 1823. Today, most scientific journals have become increasingly specialized although older journals such as Nature and Science continue to publish in a range of disciplines. Most scientific journals today contain articles that are peer reviewed in order to meet the highest standards of quality set by their editors and publishers.

While scientific journals may appear similar to trade magazines, they are vastly different in scope and aims. Scientific journals are not used like magazines or newsletters. Published research is an essential component of knowledge transfer in the sciences. If the results of a study describe its subjects properly, they should supply sufficient detail to ensure that an independent researcher could repeat the experiment for himself. This reproducibility makes each article part of the permanent scientific record. During the last 100 years or so, there has been about a 7% increase each year in the number of journals published, i.e. doubling in total every 10-15 years. To exert better control over this information it may be necessary to do more indexing of content. Many scientific journals are global, and the web plays a role in their promotion. Rapid outlets for publishing, subject indexing, open access to articles wherever computers are available are among the main reasons access has opened up so much. A number of problems need to be resolved in this equation, among them e-journal archiving and protecting the integrity of information.

Sources of knowledge for 400 years

"...The journal is so much a part of the current apparatus of scholarly communication that one never really thinks where and how the term might have originated. The origins of the word “journal” derives from Old French, Middle English and Late Latin in the fourteen century. However, perhaps the concept of the journal all started under the oriental plane tree in Kos, Greece with Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, discussing medical topics with his students. The complete collection of Hippocrates’s writings do not appear to have been undertaken by him alone as there are different writing styles and different medical topics. Thus, the work attributed to Hippocrates that has survived could be the earliest contributions of the journal format in the western world...." Grant-Suttie (2016)

The history of the scientific journal in the English-speaking world dates back to the 1660s and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which began to publish in 1665. (The Philosophical Transactions and the Journal des Sçavans both appeared in 1665, and are widely-considered to be the the very first published scientific journals.) The use of the word "philosophical" in the title comes from "natural philosophy", a discipline which was then somewhat equivalent to what we now call "science". More than one thousand, mostly ephemeral, journals were founded in the 18th century. Scientific journals have been used in research and higher education ever since. Today, many students meet to evaluate research which often consists of reading a classic or current paper -- after which students critique it. In scientific journal clubs and academic departments, new research is commonly discussed and critiqued.

The standards used to determine publishability vary in the digital age. Some journals such as Nature, Science, PNAS, and Physical Review Letters come from a great tradition of publishing major breakthroughs in science. In some fields, an informal hierarchy of scientific journals exists, with prestigious journals being the most selective in terms of publication. It is common for journals to have a regional focus, specializing in papers from specific regions or countries. Some may be highly technical, representing the latest theoretical research and experimentation in science. Some are incomprehensible to anyone except the researchers in the field. In some areas this is inevitable; usually, rigorous rules of scientific writing are enforced by journal editors but the rules vary from journal to journal, especially between journals from different publishers. The means of production in the web 2.0 age have made it easier for anyone to publish.

Types of articles

There are several types of journal articles; the exact terminology and definitions vary by field and specific journal, but often include:

  • Letters also called communications (not to be confused with letters to the editor) are short descriptions of important current research findings fast-tracked for immediate publication because they are considered urgent
  • Research notes are short descriptions of current research considered less urgent or important than Letters
  • Articles are between five and twenty pages and are complete descriptions of current original research but there are variations between scientific fields and journals – 80-page articles are not uncommon in mathematics or theoretical fields
  • Supplemental articles contain a large volume of tabular data that is the result of current research and may be dozens or hundreds of pages of numerical data.
  • Review articles do not cover original research but rather accumulate results from many articles on a specific topic into a coherent narrative about the state of the art in that field. Review articles provide information about the topic and references to the original research.

The formats of journal articles vary, but many follow the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Articles begin with an abstract or a one-to-four-paragraph summary. The introduction describes the background for the research including a discussion of similar research. The materials and methods or experimental section provides specific details about how the research was conducted. The results and discussion section describes the outcome and implications of the research; the conclusion places the research in context and describes areas for further exploration. In addition to the above, some scientific journals such as Science will include a news section where scientific developments (often involving political issues) are described. These articles are often written by science journalists and not by scientists. In addition, some journals will include an editorial section and a section for letters to the editor. While these are articles published within a journal, in general they are not regarded as scientific journal articles because they have not been peer-reviewed.

Electronic publishing

Some scholars believe that peer-reviewed paper journals will soon be replaced by more timely electronic formats. One format is the online equivalent of conventional paper journals; another are opinion pieces on blogs. Nearly all scientific journals have, while retaining peer review, established an electronic presence and moved online. In a similar way, most academic libraries are buying electronic versions of books and purchase paper copies for the most important or most-used titles only. There is usually a publication delay of several months after an article is written and this makes paper journals less than ideal for sharing current research. Many journals now publish final papers as electronic versions as they are ready, without waiting for a complete issue to be complete. In some fields, where even greater speed is desirable, the role of the journal at disseminating current research has been replaced by preprint sites such as Most articles are eventually published in traditional journals which still provide an important role in quality control, archiving papers, and establishing scientific credit.

Economics of access

Many scientists and librarians have protested the costs associated with subscribing to scientific journals especially as they see much of the publicly-funded research go to profit large multinational publishers. To allow researchers to access their own content many universities purchase site licenses which permit access to content from anywhere at the university through appropriate authorization. These are expensive, sometimes more than a print subscription, although this reflects the number of people who will be using the license; print subscriptions reflect the cost for one person to receive the journal whereas site-licenses account for many more. Publications by scholarly societies -- known as not-for-profit-publishers (NFP) -- cost less than commercial publishers but can still be several thousand dollars a year. In general, profits from publishing are used to fund activities of the societies that publish journals or are invested in providing further resources for scientist readers. Despite the transition to electronic publishing, a serials crisis persists. Concerns about the sustainability of business and access models have led to the creation of open access journals. However, professional editors need to be compensated and journals may require donations from foundations to cover costs. Smaller journals do not enjoy the same benefits. The article entitled "Online or invisible?" uses statistical arguments to show that publishing online provides greater dissemination power and increases the number of citations an author can receive. Papers that are easier to access are used more often and therefore cited more often.


See also Copyright for academic librarians

Traditionally, authors have been asked to sign copyright release forms supplied by journal publishers. Publishers said these were necessary to protect author rights and to coordinate permissions for reprints. Many authors, especially those who believe in open access, found this unethical and have used their influence to remove the requirement. Under other approaches, publishers have permission to edit, print, and distribute articles commercially, but author(s) retain other rights. Where publishers retain copyright, most concede certain rights to authors. These include the ability to reuse parts of the paper and allow authors to distribute copies. Some publishers grant authors the right to post articles at authors' websites, institutional repositories and e-print servers. The rise of open access in which authors retain copyright but pay fees for publication is a response to for-profit models seen across the publishing landscape.


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