Scientific publications can take the form of reviews of a particular subject, which may in some cases be requested by the publisher of a scientific journal from a specialist, or spontaneously addressed to such a journal. The purpose of reviews is to summarise a new or ‘hot’ topic concerning which information is scattered in many publications. As they enable the current state of knowledge to be summarised, their impact can be strong. They are often based on an inventory of several hundred referenced papers that have been collected by the authors, and the results of which are viewed from a general perspective.
Meta-analyses are articles that group and add up the results of several clinical studies that are comparable but have been performed on limited groups of patients. By adding up the results of these studies, it is possible to extract information that is more reliable; however, it must be demonstrated that such an addition can be performed and that there are no confounding factors or recruitment biases. Such meta-analyses are particularly useful when comparing the efficacy of several drugs. Sophisticated statistical methods enable the summation of the results of each individual study to be validated – or not.
Traditionally, a scientific paper is a presentation of the results of experimentation which may be biochemical or performed on cell cultures or lab animals, most often mice. The samples analysed may therefore be animal or human.
The commonest approach is to test a working hypothesis using the most appropriate form of experimentation, by multiplying approach routes, by stimulating or inhibiting certain proteins, triggering cell differentiation in cultures, applying several technologies to detect the changes induced by various experimental conditions. Results must be reproducible from one experiment to the next, quantifiable, objective and hence independent of the observer, and compared with appropriate control groups. Other experiments are not based on prior hypotheses, but take the form of analysing all genetic factors (genomes), all proteins (proteomes), all microbes in an organ (microbiomes), all transcriptions of mRNA into proteins (transcriptomes), all lipids (lipidomes), etc. Differences are sought between what is observed in a specific disease with no reference to a prior hypothesis, and a mechanistic explanation is then sought for the differences observed.
Whatever the case, scientific papers must be written in a fairly standardised format, with an introduction that describes the current state of knowledge and the question(s) asked, a precise description of the equipment and methods used that enable the experiments to be reproduced as well as of the statistical analyses used, a ‘Results’ section with concise descriptions and illustrated with figures or photographs, and a discussion of the new data yielded by the experiment. A scientific paper always ends by referencing a number of papers and other publications published earlier on the same subject or a related topic. These are preceded by a summary, each word of which is carefully weighed. The authors must mention the financial support received for their experiment and any potential conflicts of interest.
Of course, scientific research relies heavily on technical progress, whether in imaging, protein and lipid analysis, or genetic analysis. It is therefore unsurprising that some discoveries are made almost simultaneously by different teams in different countries when a particular technology has increased analytic potential.
Scientific papers must then be submitted to a journal according to its subject and themes. They are reviewed critically and anonymously by a minimum of two independent reviewers, who usually request more or less substantial changes to the manuscript and give their opinion concerning the interpretation of the results achieved. This ‘back-office’ work is extremely important, as reviewers can detect inconsistencies or even major errors. The reviewed manuscript is finally accepted for publication if the authors’ responses to the reviewers are satisfactory, if their methods are reliable and if their results contribute new or corroborating data.
These days, papers are often published online before they are printed. Some journals are even online-only. An increasing number of papers are open-access, i.e. anyone can read the paper in full without even having to subscribe to the journal. Members of an academic community may also be able to access them if their university library has taken out a subscription for all its members. It should be mentioned that a number of oral presentations are never published, the reason being that they are not sufficiently grounded. Some published papers may even be retracted if they are seen to contain errors. Such errors can occur in all research and be published in even the most reputable journals. Retraction of work should not be misjudged. On the contrary, it is a respectable and honest act. One instance is supplied by American professor Frances Arnold who, as an undergraduate, worked as a house cleaner, taxi driver and pizzeria waitress, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018. She co-authored a paper in renowned journal Science in 2021, then requested its retraction because the results were not reproducible, thereby acknowledging a scientific error. One can only admire the greatness behind this approach.
It is therefore clear that innovative results must always be independently confirmed by a different team from the one that first published them.
Personally, I shall always be grateful to the anonymous reviewer of one of my first scientific papers for the many comments and criticisms they made on my manuscript, which helped me improve it and its successors! I have also had the satisfaction of being thanked by the authors of a paper for my anonymous comments, which they had found to be constructive and had enabled them to improve and consolidate their work. Like any other activity, scientific research is a human activity with its failures and successes, its difficulties and satisfactions, and a profession that is learned patiently over time.