Changing the way we communicate scientific findings

It is time to discuss how we can reveal blind alleys, confusion, and ignoble thoughts in scientists’ discovery process.

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As Richard Feynman pointed out (1965 Nobel Lecture, Introduction), the expectation that submissions to scientific journals be as final and polished as possible obscures all the tracks and blind alleys explored to achieve the end product. Nor is Feynman alone in this criticism: Peter Medawar (The Art of the Soluble, Pelican; 1969), another Nobel laureate, and Edward O. Wilson (Consilience, Vintage Books; 1999) also stress that scientific articles, being stripped of all the confusions and ignoble thoughts that harbor most of the secrets of scientific success, actively misrepresent the reasoning behind the work. It may thus be time to seriously debate whether the scientific community or society in general can afford to lose such information, which is mostly forgotten after the scientific findings are published. Albert Einstein, for example, urged science historians to focus on scientists’ thought processes, what they wrestled with or aimed for (G. Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions, Harvard University Press; 1996). Yet should such a challenging forensic task be left only to historians struggling with limited information? Could science’s recent trend toward increasing accountability and transparency not also encourage better communication and disclosure of how scientists reach their insights and conclusions (A. Pagan and B. Torgler, Nature, 522, 34; 2015)? Isn’t it not refreshing, for instance, to listen to James Watson refer, in his 2005 TED talk on discovering DNA’s structure, to Jerry Donohue’s crucial input during construction of the model that the hydrogen atoms were in the wrong place? This feedback changed the game from nothing much to something big. Perhaps a Nobel laureate scientist can better reveal the missteps and obstacles encountered than those yet to prove their place in the science pantheon. Yet if, as Feynman believes, no place exists in which scientists can directly publish their insights in a dignified manner, it is the scientists themselves who could agree on how to provide one.

Benno Torgler

Professor, School of Economics and Finance and Centre for Behahavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Queensland University of Technology

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