And We’re Back. Let’s Talk Peer Review

Hello fellow butterfly enthusiasts! It has been a long time since I’ve posted, but we are almost at the 1 year mark for the blog! Things have been really busy here for me. I finished all of my analysis from my experiments last summer and I have already started doing experiments this summer. Also on a personal note my grad student husband and I are expecting a baby girl by the beginning of September. We’re both really excited and luckily the pregnancy hasn’t slowed me down too much. Here’s a picture of me after catching Colias butterflies here in North Carolina last week.

Catching butterflies 6 months pregnant.

So when I last left you I was analyzing mountains of data. That is mostly finished and I’d love to tell you all about my results, but I can’t do that just yet. Here’s the reason why. In science when you finish an experiment you need to write it up in the form of a scientific paper and submit it to a scientific journal. This paper goes through a process called “peer review” before it becomes available to read. Peer review means that the paper is scrutinized by other scientists in your field for scientific errors and inaccuracies. Often times there are three reviewers per paper and they are looking for things like: “Was this a valid way to conduct the experiment?”, “Is this experiment repeatable or just random?”, “Is this researcher making claims that are not supported by their data?”, etc. They also check the paper for things like general readability, length, and making sure all the graphs and figures are easy enough to understand. Each reviewer can then accept the paper, accept the paper with revisions, or reject the paper. Rarely are papers accepted right away without having to make some revisions. Once each reviewer has made a decision about the paper, an editor from the scientific journal makes a final decision. If it gets rejected you can fix some of the issues that the reviews had and resubmit the paper to another journal. If it gets accepted with revisions, you get to make those revisions and then in a few months your paper gets published! It’s a long process, but a thorough one, and the it aims to make sure that there are no inaccuracies in science.

 

Peer review is not a perfect system, sometimes bad experiments get published, and the process itself is long and can seem drawn out, but it’s the best we have for now. It’s like fact-checking an article in the newspaper. You want to be able to trust that the news is unbiased and reporting the facts. It’s the same way in science. Politicians make policy decisions and doctors make medical decisions based on scientific research. Also as most of the science down in this country is funded by the federal government through the National Science Foundation or the National Institute of Health, scientists have a responsibility to report the facts to the taxpayers. It’s always big news when a scientist has been committing data fraud and it can be grounds to lose your PhD! However, most scientists are honest and only report true data. It makes sense when you think about why many people became scientists in the first place. They liked asking questions and discovering the answers. When scientists make up fake results they are cheating themselves out of making actual discoveries.

 

So that in a nutshell is peer review, and it’s one of the reasons why even though I’m SUPER excited about my results from last summer, I can’t share them with you yet. I wouldn’t want to make any scientific claims that haven’t been “fact checked” by other scientists yet. Hopefully this fall I will start writing these papers so that soon they will be published and I can talk all I want about them here on the blog! I promise my next blog post will be sooner rather than later and with more pretty butterfly pictures! Also, as a shameless plug check out this sweet Q&A article in the Raleigh News and Observer about the blog and why Sarah and I started it.

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