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Scientific Communication

Science is based on discovery and its communication to others.  We look at the advances of society and stand in awe of the men and women whose work and brilliance has shaped our world.  Very little advancement would have been possible if discoveries went unreported to other scientists.  New discoveries redefine what is known about the world and provide starting points and ideas for the work of others.  But the expansion of science is not possible if scientists don't communicate.

Scientific communication has its roots in the ancient philosophers who found part of their calling to be explanation for how the world "works".  Modern scientific communication arguably can be traced back to the mid-1600s and the Royal Society of London.  Their "Philosophical Transactions" became the first scientific journal committed to reporting scientific discoveries to allow exposure of cutting edge science to a world hungry for knowledge.  

The process has matured and been refined over the years to a format that is now used somewhat universally.  Science reports new information in the form of scientific papers which have a predictable structure.  After a brief Abstract that summarizes the work, the paper begins with an Introduction explaining what was known previous to this study about the problem or phenomenon upon which the work is based.  It sets the stage for the original work being reported.  A Materials and Methods (or Methods) section explains how the study was designed, how experiments were done.  The Results section provides an uninterpreted presentation of the results from the study.  The Discussion section analyzes the results and interprets their meaning to explain how this new work impacts the conditions described in the Introduction.  This format, called IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) is over 100 years old and is attributed by some to the publication of research by Louis Pasteur.

Research papers generally follow the IMRAD format and are published in scientific periodicals called a "journals".  There are over 1000 journals that publish life science papers, most reporting new findings on a monthly basis.  There are over 100 microbiology journals alone.  Papers are submitted to editorial review boards where they are analyzed and critiqued to insure the trustworthiness and logical interpretation of the discoveries being reported.  The reviewers are scientists who do similar work, and the process is called "peer-review".  Peer-reviewed research is considered the accepted standard for quality and significance in scientific communication.

What do the peer reviewers look for?  Good research is reproducible - it can be repeated by others following the Methods described, and the results would be in line with those reported.  An old adage is that if an experiment is not reproducible, it didn't happen.  Good research includes an exhaustive review of what has been done previously by other researchers (often unknowingly including some work done in labs run by the peer reviewers).  So reviewers are looking to make sure previously reported science important to this project has not been ignored.  They also are making sure the analysis and interpretation has been done appropriately and the conclusions drawn are logical.  In other words, in varying degrees a reviewer will look at a submitted research article and test its validity before passing judgment and placing it in print for the general public.

Scientists also communicate through face-to-face interaction at meetings and conferences.  These events allow researchers to report to their peers their latest findings, even on "work-in-progress".  Presentations usually consist of a digital slideshow presentation with oral commentary from the researcher.  A brief introduction and overview of methods leads into the meat of the presentation - results and a discussion of their meaning.  Often, these are preliminary results or parts of projects that will be combined for a single paper.  For this reason, speculation as to what the results MIGHT mean is allowed.  Often there is a peer-review screening process that insures the work is appropriate and of sufficient quality and interest to a crowd of peers.  Conference organizers will establish the ground rules - typically 10-12 minutes of presentation and a few minutes for questions from the audience.  

photo of oral presentation

Because so much science is being reported and meetings and journals have limited capacity, another approach to scientific communication has grown in popularity over the past several decades.  Research posters are created to cover all details of an IMRAD paper in a more compact format.  Posters are typically peer-reviewed and considered important contributions representing a very limited portion of a full-blown study, the visual equivalent of an oral presentation.  Posters are often 3 ft x 4 ft and contain abbreviated content in the Introduction and Methods section - the emphasis is placed on results and discussion.  Back in the labs where the work is being done, it is not uncommon for the work reported in several posters to be combined into a single paper for submission to a research journal.  


A scientific meeting often has oral presentations and a poster session going on simultaneously.  An advantage of posters is that there is expanded opportunity for an audience to see the work being reported and to interact with the researcher because posters can be left up for long periods of time to allow a "come and go" audience to view the research and respond to the authors at their leisure.  In contrast, an oral presentation gives an interested person one shot to attend and hear about the research.  Because these talks are often held in small rooms, a talk may only reach a small portion of the attendees at the conference.  Posters overcome these obstacles and limitations.

In this section, you will take a deeper look at the importance of ethical scientific communication, discover how to find reliable sources for background information on a research topic, and create a scientific poster to report on a simulated medical case using VUMIEtm 2012.

Before leaving this page, your instructor may wish for you to take the quiz over this information at this link.