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How science works (and what are the risks of pre-prints in the pandemic)

by ace
How science works (and what are the risks of pre-prints in the pandemic)

The Covid-19 pandemic has put science in the spotlight. Terms unknown to the population until recently, such as herd immunity, R0 or suppression of transmission, have become common on social networks. It is one of the few positive points of the period we live in. Society turned its attention to science, started reading science pages in newspapers and sharing scientific news.

Valuing scientific research is a sign of social maturity, but, like everything in life, there are bonuses and burdens. The downside of this thing, in this case, is linked to the fact that society is being bombarded with scientific news without necessarily being prepared to interpret it thoughtfully. For that, it is necessary to understand the basics of how science works here in Brazil and in the world.

The good thing is that Brazil follows strict standards, in the international mold, of distributing funds to researchers, as well as classifying a researcher's scientific background. All scientists deposit their professional history on a national platform called Lattes Platform. In it, scientists add their publications, the research funding they coordinate and coordinate and the entire history of academic performance. Mathematical indexes are also added, such as number of citations of published articles – that is, if the scientific community is reading and mentioning the researcher's work.

There is also a quality metric for scientific journals, called an impact factor. Journals with a long scientific tradition, with a high impact factor, generally have strict criteria for publishing a scientific study.

To guarantee scientific rigor, the process of scientific discovery is intrinsically slow. The scientist experiments or analyzes data to answer a question, be it innovative or incremental. Each experiment yields results that can bring up new questions or reveal a discovery — for example, that a drug works against a germ in laboratory experiments.

Usually, more experiments are performed to confirm the observation. If in an experiment the scientist observes that a certain germ dies in contact with a drug, it is normal for him to carry out other experiments to deepen his studies trying to understand, for example, the mechanisms by which the drug acts, and if the activity is specific against the germ , without reaching our body. Drugs with mechanisms of action that reach not only the desired target but also our body do us harm – they are called side effects.

After several analyzes with evidence and counter-proofs, the scientist may decide to share his findings with the scientific community

To share this data, the scientist writes a scientific paper, which we call "paper". In the paper, which must be essentially technical, the scientist must explain the reasons that led him to test the drug D against the G germ, detail the methods he used for the tests, present the results and discuss the impacts of the conclusions in the area of study.

Depending on the area of ​​study, the whole process can take years.

How does a scientist publish his work?

The scientific community has created mechanisms so that every published paper has been thoroughly evaluated by other scientific reviewers in the same area: it is called peer review.

The reviewers, usually between 2 and 4 scientists, are anonymously tasked with assessing whether the work was well conducted. It is their comments that help editors of scientific journals decide whether or not to publish their work. It is interesting to note that serious scientific journals are transparent about the date history of a scientific article (when it was submitted for publication, time for review and when it was accepted by the editor). Very similar mechanisms, usually with more evaluation steps and sometimes with more reviewers, are used to approve research funding.

The process of reviewing a paper can take months, as reviewers can request more experimental data, for example. It is also common for reviewers to reject the paper, indicating that it lacks scientific rigor.

Consolidating a new discovery takes even longer. Even conclusions supported by convincing results will only be considered as knowledge consolidated by the scientific community after being reproduced and confirmed by other scientific groups.

Pre-prints

Seeking to speed up the process of publishing scientific data, which at the moment is quite convenient, a new publication model called pre-print. On the online platforms for publishing pre-prints, the works are made available without any peer review, almost directly by the authors. There is only format check and possible plagiarism.

The obvious advantage brought by the pre-print publishing platforms is the speed with which scientific findings can be shared in the scientific community. The disadvantage is that the works published as pre-print do not undergo any careful evaluation.

Generally, works published as pre-prints are, at the same time, submitted to scientific journals for publication after peer review. The problem arises when works published as pre-prints are widely disseminated and shared by those who do not have the training to assess the scientific rigor of publications. Thus, despite accelerating the sharing of scientific information among scientists, pre-prints, when they lack scientific rigor, can contribute to the dissemination of data from experimental methodologies without solid scientific support or from biased conclusions, that is, that may have been made by misinterpreting the data.

It is good that access to scientific information is democratized. Scientific maturity necessarily involves exposure to the way science shares data, conclusions and opinions.

However, it is important to keep in mind the source of the information to know how preliminary it is. Pre-print? Cientific magazine? Which magazine? Has tradition? Was there peer review? Is there transparency? What is the background of the principal investigator? Which institution is affiliated with?

The valorization of the scientific method and science as an institution capable of finding solutions to the evils we face, whether biological, economic or social, is an advance that must be celebrated and pursued. Countries that maintain a critical mass of well-trained scientists and a population with education on the scientific method will always be better prepared to face adversity, as the scientific method remains the only way for society to advance.

It is important for society to understand how this method works and to trust its scientists and research institutions to produce and interpret published results.

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