When people say things like “the science is settled” or “the science has changed,” researchers tend to grind their teeth. Science can come to a broad consensus, as in the case of the coronavirus or climate change, but it isn’t ever perfectly settled as a bloc on any question. We proceed in scientific knowledge not by attaining perfect knowledge but, as Isaac Asimov once wrote, by being less wrong than those who came before.
And scientists advance in scientific publishing, as Aeon writes, not with certainty, but with “excitement, baby steps and reams of rejections.” As we see in the short film above, The Researcher’s Article, by French filmmaker Charlotte Arene, getting one’s research published can be “a patience-testing exercise in rejection, rewriting and waiting,” demonstrated here by the travails of physicists Frédéric Restagno and Julien Bobroff of the University of Paris-Saclay.
Even before submitting their findings, the scientists must carefully fit their work into the traditional form known as the “letter,” a document of four pages or fewer that condenses years of research into strictly succinct paragraphs, graphs, and references. The “letter” is “one of the most popular formats of articles in physics,” say the physicists, noting the major Nobel prize-winning discoveries to appear as letters in recent years, including the Higgs’ Boson publication that won in 2013, coming in at only two pages long.
Summing up “a massive amount of data,” short scientific articles then go on to prove themselves to their respective fields through a refereeing process in which three anonymous scientists read the work and recommend publication, revision, or rejection. This process can go several rounds and take several months. One must be persistent: Restagno and Bobroff were rejected from several journals before finally getting an acceptance.
After this significant investment of time and effort, the authors may have a readership of maybe twenty people. But crowd size is not the point, they say, “because research is made up of all these small discoveries,” contributing to a larger picture, informing and correcting each other, and going about the humble, painstaking business of trying to be less wrong than their predecessors, while still building on the best insights of hundreds of years of scientific publishing.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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