Science for SciFi: Peer Review

When a research project reaches completion, the investigators often write up their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Once the investigators decide what journal is most appropriate for their research, they submit their paper, if the editor of the journal decides that the research has merit and is a good fit for the journal, they begin the peer review process.

For many scientists, the peer review process can be stressful and drawn out, sometimes for all parties involved. But the peer review process, despite its faults, is vital to ensuring that honest, quality research gets published.

It’s also likely to be a major source of stress for the scientists in your novel.

There are A LOT of memes about Reviewer 2 out there. Source

Article Anatomy

Each publisher and journal will have its own formatting guidelines. These are the essential bits. Sometimes results and discussion will be a single section and not separate.

Abstract – in science we pack the conclusions into the headline. Abstracts vary in length but are normally about a paragraph. An abstract’s job is to convince someone to read the entire article and to help put what follows into context. Writing an abstract is hard, in just a few sentences you need to explain why the research matters, how it was done, and what conclusions were made.

Introduction – this is (for me) the most fun part of the article to write. The introduction explains the basic principles of an article. An introduction should explain the motivations behind the research and what gap the research aims to fill.

Experimental/Materials and Methods – every journal puts this section in a different place within the article. For someone interested in learning the impact of the research this section is fairly boring, for someone who wants to judge how reliable the data is or replicate certain techniques, this section is essential. Experimental contains a list of what tools and materials were used, who manufactured them, and how they were prepared.

Results- this section explains the collected data in excruciating detail. The data is often supplemented by a variety of graphs and other diagrams.

Discussion – here is where the authors get to explain what the data means. This section is filled with explanation and interpretation.

Conclusion – these are short. Almost as short as the abstract. A conclusion should be short and sweet.

References – any claim that is not common knowledge for the audience or data gained from the research needs to be cited. This might include established experimental techniques, general background information, mathematical formulas, computer code, and so on.

How To Read An Article

How you read an article will depend on what you are trying to get from it. If you are trying to discern the salient points you will probably read the abstract to decide if you care about it. Then maybe the introduction, then the discussion and conclusion.

If you want to explain how the authors reached those conclusions you will spend a lot of time reading the experimental and results sections. You will want to know what they did, understand why, and try and see where the project’s weak points are. This can take a good deal of time and may require multiple readings of a single article.

If you want to know the current state of the field, then a single research article just won’t do. You might find many other sources from the reference list at the end of the article, but you’ll quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. If you are new to a field, you will want to find a review article. A review article is meant to summarize the current state of a given field or subfield and will highlight that field’s important developments. These articles may have hundreds of references.

The Review Process

Once the authors submit a paper, the first thing the editor does is decide whether the article is suitable for their publication. Basically, does it fit the focus of the publication and does it have a large enough impact? Some journals are “high-impact” and some are not. But that is a discussion for another day.

If the paper makes it past this stage the article is sent to a set of reviewers. These reviewers are chosen because they are experts in the field. They are the authors’ “peers” and are likely to have the knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of the research.

These experts comment on the experiments, the data, and may suggest changes that need to be made before the paper is ready for publication. This is where many of the Reviewer 2 memes originate. Authors may often feel that a reviewer’s comments are unreasonable, or that they are trying to manipulate the authors for their own benefit. The good news here is that authors can respond to reviewer comments, and if they can convince the editor that the comments have been addressed then the article can be published.

The key thing to remember is that just because an article has gone through peer review does not mean that it is free of mistakes. A research article is the result of the best possible measurements and analyses that were possible at the time. Peer review means that a small group of experts has decided that the research has merit and that it is free of major flaws.

This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes, that there is not a larger picture, or that better analysis or measurements won’t be done in the future. A single research paper tells just one small part of a larger journey of discovery.

Emotional Costs

The impact of one single paper is likely to be minuscule, but to the authors, it might well be everything. PI’s (principal investigators) are often established, professors. The other authors, however, are likely students. These students spend years working on a project that might result in just a handful of papers. For these students, the process can be very draining. No matter how “small” the project may be in the grand scheme of things, it has, by the time of publication, been a major part of their life.

For many in academia, publishing is everything. Publishing is how graduate students build a resume. And it’s how many professors achieve tenure. Research activity is frequently measured in publications and grants.

Scenarios

There are a lot of ways to write a scientist’s motivations. But based on what we have just talked about above I will provide a few examples. The examples in this list are for creative purposes only. These are WRITING PROMPTS, not recommendations or endorsements.

  • After years of “publish or perish” the character sees their self-worth only in terms of publications. They frequently overwork themselves and lose sleep in order to make progress.
  • Eager to increase their number of publications, the character divides their research into smaller and smaller chunks to get more papers out. This practice is sometimes called “salami slicing.” It’s frowned upon, but they hope that most observers will only see the publication count and not look much deeper.
  • Desperate to publish in a high-profile journal, the character begins to falsify or omit data. After getting away with it multiple times they think they are safe. Then, several years later, they are found out and their career crumbles around them.
  • The rat race of academia is too much. Fed up with the constant publish or perish mentality, the character decides to take a post at a teaching-focused institution. They publish a paper every few years, but what they really care about are the lives of the students they help shape.

Further Reading

I don’t have any book recomendations about the peer review process. However, peer review and publishing play big roles in the lives of scientists. So here are a couple books where you can learn about the history of science and the people who do it.

Science for SciFi: Natural Weapons

Picture this. You’re an imperial guardsman in service to the Imperium of Mankind and the Tyranids have come knocking. They’re coming for you now. As you stand ready in your trench, lasgun in hand you wonder; what are they made of?

There are a few options.

Chitin

close up of lobster underwater
Photo by Roger Brown on Pexels.com

Sugars are a lot stronger than they get credit for. When you think of sugar you might be thinking of the fructose and sucrose in our food. These are all longer chains of glucose, a small sugar molecule that is used by many living things as fuel and as an important building material. Even cellulose is a sugar.

And chitin is, you guessed it, a sugar.

It might seem strange to think that the white powder on your donut can be a part of the same material found in insect exoskeletons. But it’s really not that unusual.

Chitin is a polymer, more specifically a polysaccharide. It’s made of many smaller subunits of modified glucose. Along each unit is weak, but together they form long chains capable of aggregating to form materials that are much stronger than the individual parts.

Chitin currently has multiple uses in agriculture and industry. It can be used to make edible films and strengthen paper. Or it can be used by farmers to trigger immune responses in plants to protect against insects. There are also potential applications for chitin in medicine, biodegradable plastics, and building on Mars.

Now what if you live on a planet without trees and other plants? Maybe the natives consist of giant armored insects and walking mushrooms. What will you wear? You could kill one of the insects and wear it’s shell, but I like to think that you would be more creative. After a few years living on the planet you and your people might find a way to take the chitin plates of the local insects and spin them into durable fibers for making clothes and all sorts of tools.

Keratin

brown rhinoceros
Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

If you read the first post in this series you’ll remember that proteins are how living things do stuff. Your hair and nails? That’s protein. You might think that because you can cut both with scissors that keratin is weak.

You’d be wrong.

Others in the animal kingdom put their keratin to much better use. Scales are made of keratin and so are claws and horns.

There are two kinds of keratin, alpha and beta. Keratin is a helical protein, it forms long strange and curls around itself. Alpha and beta refer to the direction of the curl. Mammals and certain fish have alpha keratin, reptiles and others have beta.

One thing that makes keratin especially strong is the disulfide bonds between the keratin strands. Bonds like this between polymer strands is called cross-linking. Besides being used in our bodies, cross-linking is often employed by polymer chemists to create strong and resilient materials.

Venom

photo of snake
Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Pexels.com

Venom is used by many animals for defence and attack, and you do not want to be on the receiving end. There are three ways that venom can inflict pain; it can kill cells, it can target nerves, or it can target muscles.

Obviously there are many different kinds of venom. Not all will kill humans, at least not without a lot of it. But there are some horrifying ways that they can kill a human if they do. Venom can kill cells, target the nervous systems, or target muscles.

According to “Snake venom components and their applications in biomedicine” by Koh et al., neurotoxins are the most studied class of snake venoms. One of these neurotoxins are the alpha-neurotoxins which specifically target nicotine acetylcoline receptors.

Receptors are specific proteins on the outside of cells designed bind to specific chemicals. You can think of receptors as sensors on the outside of a cell and they are how cells communicate through chemical signals. By blocking these receptors, alpha-neurotoxins prevent the normal function of these nerve cells, and death follows soon after.

You might be surprised to know that while these toxins are deadly they also have uses in healing. Receptors are incredibly important in biology. It’s hard to understate just how important these are. Because these toxins are so specific to certain receptors they are very useful for for figuring out what those receptors do. For example, in biochemical research it is common to block a receptor and see what happens to the cells after they have been deprived of it’s use. This data then yields important clues to the function of that receptor.

But there’s more. When used in the right dose, these neurotoxins can reduce inflammation and pain. So these toxins can not only cause pain, but show us how to negate them. If they are used carefully.

Conclusion

Now let’s return to you, the guardsman. You’re stuck in your trench. First come the small beasts, ferrocious dog-like things. They’re soft and they fall easily to your lasguns but there are too many of them. They dive into your trench and tear your friends apart with their keratin claws. You think one is coming for you, but before it can sink it’s claws into you feel yourself picked up by a pair of chitinous claws.

You look up. Above you is gaping maw flanked by two horrible mandibles. A pointed tongue flicks out and pierces your skin. Your blood congeals and turns to jelly and slowly every fades as you are pulled into it’s jaw…

This Isn’t Personal

Listen. Please, listen.

We’ve been friends for awhile and I want you to know that I don’t want to do this. I know it isn’t ideal, but I want you to know that it isn’t what I want. Honestly, it’s a little bit your fault. It’s my fault too. We share the blame really.

I should have hidden this better and you should have listened when I told you not to go snooping around. I told you not to look in the trunk ages ago, didn’t I? And you just went and looked in it anyway. I suppose it’s really all my fault. I’m the one who tried to hide it in plain sight. I should have warded it when I saw you express interest.

I know far too well the draw that the trunk’s contents can have. The effect that they have on people. I’m used to it, I’ve learned to resist. It wasn’t fair to expect you to as well, not when you had no idea what is inside.

But that’s all in the past. Water under the bridge.

I really wish I didn’t have to do this.

Dying from a knife wound isn’t so bad though. It’s definitely one of the better ways to go. I’ll just slide this blade through your ribs quick and then you’ll be gone. Poof. Quick.

If anything, this is going to be worse for me than it will be for you. I’m the one who has to hide your body afterwards. It will probably eat up my entire weekend. Before I do that, I need to make sure that what’s in the trunk wasn’t trying to hitch a ride on your psyche. I’ll have to perform some particularly tricky incantations to make sure it doesn’t gobble up your soul.

Actually, you know what? We’ll do those first, it’s safer that way. I may have to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I want to send you off to eternal damnation. We’ll send you off the right way.

Let’s get started…

What? Look. I don’t know what you want me to do. Neither of us have a choice here. The thing in the trunk is just too dangerous. You’ve seen it and now you’re vulnerable. As long as you know it’s in there it could use you to help it escape.

There. Is. No. Other. Way.

You are my friend; I don’t want to have to gag you, but I will if you make me. If you keep talking like this you will mess up my spell casting. If I get distracted it won’t be good for either of us. So be quiet, please.

Like I said. Knife is hardly the worst way to go. I’ll make it quick. And for what it’s worth, this isn’t personal. It’s just something I have to do.

Now Accepting Guest Posts!

I’ll be honest, this blog is a hobby and only attracts minor traffic, but it’s a lot of fun. Through my efforts to promote it on Twitter and Instagram I have met a lot of other great creators and streamers and it’s participating in this community that has been the most fun.

That is why I’ve decided to start offering opportunities for guest posts and collaborations. If you like this site and want to collaborate send me an email with your idea at charlesm@charles-m.com with the words GUEST POST in the subject line. I will check this email at least once every week, if I take awhile to get back to you just send me a message on twitter @expyblg.

I cannot offer payments and I don’t expect payment for any collaborations. This is meant to be a new way to interact with the larger community and hopefully support each other. With that said, I do have a few rules about what can be included in a guest post on this site.

The Rules

  • You should include whatever biographical information about yourself that you would like included with the post.
  • You may include links to your own blog, twitter, kofi, wattpad, instagram, patreon, twitch, redbubble, or etsy pages.
  • You may not include affiliate links, referral links, or anything that could be construed as spam.
  • Your guest post should relate to speculative fiction, writing, worldbuilding, gaming, or something related to these communities. Don’t hesitate to ask if you are not sure whether your idea fits.
  • You should email me before you start writing. If something doesn’t quite fit I’d rather not have to say no to someone who has already written an entire essay.
  • You may submit something that you have already posted on your own blog.
  • Commentary on current events or anything that could be construed as racist or discriminatory is not allowed.
  • All sources for material that is not your own should be properly cited.
  • Non-fiction posts should have references that support your arguments and provide links to further reading.
  • Submissions should be sharable in Google Docs.

Some (But Not All) Topics That Would Make A Good Guest Post

  • A short story, poem, game, or setting that you have made and would like to share.
  • A review of a book, board game, video game, movie, or television series that you enjoyed (or did not enjoy).
  • A guide for a writer trying to write a character who works in your career or field.
  • Explanation of a historical event or technology that may help worldbuilders.
  • Reviews of pens, keyboards, computers, notebooks, or other things that writers may like.
  • Discussion of your own scifi/fantasy inspired art and your inspirations.
  • Which D&D class is the best and why.
  • Simplified explanations of complicated topics for writers who want their characters to sound smart.
  • Guides to writing character backstories.