Are scientific papers objective?

Are scientific papers objective?

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The answer to this question is yes and no.  Science is based on the idea that we can agree on standards of measurement.  For example, if we have a measurable concept — let’s take length as an example — we can create a ruler. If we all use the same ruler, or if we reproduce that ruler exactly, then we can all agree on the length of an object like a tree or a toothpick. We can agree even if I have a ruler that measures in inches and you have a ruler that measures in centimeters because it is easy to convert from one to the other.

We depend on this kind of standardized measurability in science. Without it, others could not reproduce our results and reproducibility is a vital component of scientific experimentation. But even if we set up objective experiments to the best of our ability and are clear about what we are measuring and how, that is just a small part of science. Almost all scientific experiments are situated in a larger world ruled by subjective judgements.

Subjective judgement frames experiments because they do not take place in a moral or historical vacuum. In medicine, for example, we may operate on the basic moral presumption that governments have an obligation to improve and maintain the health of the population (a basic presumption of public health), while others may believe individuals have a right only to the level of health care they can secure and that it is best for the whole if only the strong survive.

In a scientific paper, the objective parts of our experiments are described in our Methods and Results sections. Think of these as the “cooking recipe” section of the paper where, if our colleagues follow our methods, we’ll come out with the same delicious results. The subjective parts of our experiment are contained in our Introduction and our Discussion. The Introduction justifies our experiment, and the Discussion interprets our results.

A fascinating recent paper demonstrates this by showing just how subjectively scientists interpreted the exact same results (and how uncertainty functions therein).  Likewise, scientists will choose experiments based on their own priorities, whether those are ideological (proving a point to which we are already committed) or practical (funders prefer this type of experiment to that type). As scientists we can’t avoid subjectivity, and neither we nor the field benefits from the pretense that all science is entirely objective. What we can and should do is make readers aware of our subjective premises and their effects on the interpretation of our main findings. This kind of fair and complete reporting advances the scientific conversation and allows others to build on our work.

A good Introduction clearly states your premises, both subjective and objective, and a good Discussion interprets your findings within the subjective framework you laid out in the Introduction. Because many scientists find it harder to write the subjective sections of their paper, there’s extra help built into Publisher Pro’s automated writing coach. Our coach will lead you through the process of writing an Introduction that prepares readers to receive your paper’s message, and a Discussion that places your results in their proper context and supports the message of your paper.

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