Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What's the point of a scientific paper?

Academics write research papers.  It's a major way we disseminate our ideas and, increasingly, our continued career progression and funding depends upon it.  We live in an era of metrics and impact factors.

Because of this, I've been thinking recently about what a scientific paper is, what is its purpose and how we might improve upon this.

I have also been thinking recently about science as a memetic process, that is to say in terms of evolving populations of ideas.  I think this is a useful train of thought, which can give us some interesting insights into how science works and how to make it work better.

Thinking about things in this way, I have come to the conclusion that a scientific paper should contain a small number of high-quality, useful, interesting ideas.  Plus whatever evidence is required to back those ideas up.  And that's it.  They should be as compact as possible and as simple as possible.   I'd even go so far as to say that  one should be able to communicate the point of a paper in the abstract.

Nowadays, the scientific literature is very large and keeping up with the new papers even in a small area is challenging.  I skim read at least a couple of hundred abstracts a day (RSS feeds are awesome for this), and it isn't going to get any better.  But if the paper contains a small number of well-supported ideas that are well-communicated in the abstract and title, I can grasp them more easily and pick out the papers I want to read in greater detail.

I think that the point of a scientific paper is to be a communication channel for well-supported, clearly-stated scientific ideas.  And the more succinct and high signal-to-noise the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment