Getting the scoop on science Credibility: Founded by Thomas A. Edison, the magazine Science has been called the world's most prestigious scientific journal. Its most recent scoop was an article about life on Mars.

Sun Journal

August 22, 1996|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A famous amateur astronomer in the 19th century aimed his telescopes at Mars and found whole civilizations. At the end of the 20th century, people claim to see space ships with some regularity. Some people claim they've been kidnapped by aliens.

So what's the big deal when scientists report finding evidence that microbes once lived on Mars?

For one thing, the discoverers this time did things by the scientific book: They published their claims, letting the world scrutinize their findings. And they did so in Science, no less. With a capital "S."

That is no small thing. Publication in one of the four top journals -- Science, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association -- lends an aura of instant credibility and relevance to research.

"I guess it's like the inspection on beef," says Victor McElheny, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You really want that blue stamp on the stuff. That's what gives journals like those four unusual authority."

Science wouldn't stand out on a magazine rack. Its covers typically depict a modestly photogenic cell or a crystal. Its scientist-authors don't get paid for their articles. And most of those articles could glaze a layman's eyeballs faster than a blast of liquid nitrogen. (A recent title: "Photopolymerization and Mass-Independent Sulfur Isotope Fractionations in Carbon Disulfide.") By magazine standards, its circulation is modest: 160,000.

But scientists clamor to be published in Science, which accepts only about one out of eight of the 6,700 papers submitted each year.

"For any field but medical research, this is the most prestigious journal in the world," says Stephen P. Maran, an astronomer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and spokesman for the American Astronomical Society. "It's one of the few publications at a professional level that scientists in all fields read."

The controversy over "gay genes"? That came from an article in Science. The frenzy over the "fat gene?" Another scoop for the magazine. A staff of journalists fills the front of the weekly magazine with stories on scientific issues and findings, written in laymen's language.

But it is the back of the book, where the working scientists scrawl their formulas and plot their graphs, where they really rewrite our world view.

Founded by Thomas A. Edison in 1880, Science became the official journal of the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1900. Just as Time has archrival Newsweek and Fortune competes with Forbes, so Science has Nature, a London-based rival that has about a third the circulation and perhaps a notch less clout.

Publication in Science is no guarantee that a paper is accurate, its conclusions are valid or all of its authors honest. The magazine has on occasion retracted articles or portions of them when research proved fraudulent. But Science winnows papers more vigorously than most of the tens of thousands of scientific journals published worldwide.

Consider the case of the Mars paper. Scientists studying a meteorite found in Antarctica decided it had been blasted off the surface of Mars millions of years ago. A fissure in the 4.5-billion-year-old rock, they said, contained organic compounds -- and perhaps a fossil microorganism.

The paper was submitted to the magazine April 5. It was sent to a few members of the magazine's 82-member board of review editors, made up of American, Japanese and European scientists.

Specialists on that board had to decide if the research looked rigorous and important enough for publication. Life on Mars? Well, yeah. Could be big.

Only about a third of papers submitted clear this first hurdle.

Then the paper was handed to four reviewers or "referees," specialists in the same fields as the authors.

Referees, says Monica Bradford, Science's managing editor, "can confirm that you have not made an obvious and serious mistake in interpretation, that your experimental design is correct for the question you're trying to answer, and make sure that you have accurately reflected the state of the research being done on that topic."

Often, they will ask for revisions. Science editors will not discuss what, if any, changes were demanded in the Mars paper. And the names of journal referees are traditionally withheld. This is supposed to shield them from the ire of the authors and encourage them to be blunt.

Most journals assign one referee per paper. Science always assigns at least two. As the author of "a couple of hundred papers," Maran isn't particularly fond of the refereeing process: "It's like democracy. It's the worst system anybody has ever invented to accomplish its purpose, except all the other systems."

Echoing the views of many other scientists, Maran said that referees tend either to be too hostile, because they are competitors of the authors, or too positive, because they are friends and colleagues.

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