Many non-scientists don’t realize that being a scientist is primarily about publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. That’s the name of the game for academic science careers. Your list of publications is your main scorecard affecting whether and where you get hired, whether you get grants for your research, whether you get tenure, etc. For those who don’t know, peer review means that a manuscript describing your research findings is sent to other practicing scientists in your field, and they need to find it acceptable before a journal will publish it. A paper is rarely accepted exactly as it is; rather, the reviewers usually suggest revisions (if you’re lucky… and if you’re unlucky, they don’t recommend the paper for publication at all). Publishing your results without peer review (for example, in a book or a newspaper) is not only bad for your career; it can be bad for science. Even well meaning, smart people (including myself) can misinterpret their findings, and the public’s understanding of science is hurt when the media gets wind of someone’s zany idea before it has been well scrutinized by other experts.
Of course, to produce a paper, scientists first need to work hard doing research. The stereotypical images of what scientists do are largely correct: counting organisms in the field, running experiments in the lab, analyzing data on the computer, etc. But ultimately everything must be written up and submitted. I personally have three published papers, and a few manuscripts that I hope to publish soon. This blog will allow me to discuss peer-reviewed scientific findings, including my own, but I’ll try to avoid elaborating on my own research results that are not yet in print. It’s not so much that I’m worried about getting “scooped” before I publish, since I will gladly talk about these things with other scientists. Rather, I don’t want to risk spreading misinformation among the general public by suggesting that something is true before it’s survived the whole scientific process.