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Revisiting “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”

The way textbooks and scientific research articles are being used to teach undergraduate students could convey a misleading image of scientific research
Susan M Howitt, Anna N Wilson

Author Affiliations

  • Susan M Howitt, 1Research School of Biology Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  • Anna N Wilson, 2Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia

In 1963, Peter Medawar gave a talk, Is the scientific paper a fraud?, in which he argued that scientific journal articles give a false impression of the real process of scientific discovery [1]. In answering his question, he argued that, “The scientific paper in its orthodox form does embody a totally mistaken conception, even a travesty, of the nature of scientific thought.” His main concern was that the highly formalized structure gives only a sanitized version of how scientists come to a conclusion and that it leaves no room for authors to discuss the thought processes that led to the experiments.

Medawar explained that papers were presented to appear as if the scientists had no pre‐conceived expectations about the outcome and that they followed an inductive process in a logical fashion. In fact, scientists do have expectations and their observations and analysis are made in light of those expectations. Although today's scientific papers are increasingly presented as being hypothesis‐driven, the underlying thought processes remain hidden; scientists appear to follow a logical and deductive process to test their idea and the results of these tests lead them to support or reject the hypothesis. However, even the trend toward more explicit framing of a hypothesis is often misleading, as hypotheses may be framed to explain a set of observations post hoc, suggesting a linear process that does not describe the actual discovery.

There is, of course, a good reason why the scientific paper is highly formalized and structured. Its purpose is to communicate a finding and it is important to do this as clearly as possible. Even if the actual process of discovery had been messy, a good paper presents a logical argument, provides supporting evidence, and comes to a conclusion. The reader usually does not need or …

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