Ethics and Publications

Learning Goals

In engineering and technology we make decisions based on our knowledge of a subject, often followed by some calculations, then we apply judgment. Only then is the final design, report or presentation completed. But what is our knowledge? How did we come to know whatever it is we know? We have learned from our experiences and through parents, teachers, books, work bosses, colleagues, and consultants. In an ideal situation, we have enough experience and we sift through this vast storehouse of data more or less automatically. I sometimes call this judgment. If we have sufficient experience with a particular field or type of problem, people will pay us for our judgment. We are competent in that field. Often times though, our experiences about a new field or particular situation are limited. Perhaps no one knows of this field, or perhaps the situation is common enough, but no one besides us is working on the matter. We need to gather more information, in order to make a good decision. Sometimes human health and safety depend on our judgment, more often property - the threat of economic loss. Where and how do we gather this information? And once we gather it, are we allowed to rely on it? How reliable is the information we are basing our decision upon?

Of course the answers depend on you and the situation, but here are some guidelines:

Use of scientific literature.

Scientific literature has a hierarchy. (Here I include engineering and highly specialized technical fields in "scientific.") Here it is, in order from that which you can most rely upon, to the less reliable:

Primary literature

  1. Peer-reviewed journal articles, here's a site with a list of these, read a few of the titles.

Secondary literature

  1. Peer-reviewed review articles
  2. Lists and compendiums
  3. Textbooks A textbook

Tertiary literature

  1. Reports by consultants and experts ("gray literature")
  2. Trade magazines Here's an issue of a trade mag.(Just look it over, no need to read the articles.)

Popular literature

  1. Newspapers, magazines, and TV.

On this page we will focus on primary, peer-reviewed literature. Why not just use peer-reviewed journal articles for information, if they are the most reliable? At the website above, how many of the titles of the articles in that list were comprehensible to you? By their nature, peer-review articles are written by experts in a narrow field to be read by other experts in that field. The article must express some NEW knowledge, so in many fields the discoveries are of minutia.

There is a definite hierarchy in peer-review journals, although the hierarchy is usually only apparent to those in the field. The prestigious journals might only accept one out of seven or eight articles submitted to it. The least prestigious may lack submissions and be may be lenient about their standards. Even the lenient go through a review process:

  1. The scientist drafts the paper
  2. Sends it to the journal
  3. The journal editor glances at it and rejects it if the subject matter does not fit in that journal
  4. The journal editor sends it to a specialty editor
  5. The specialty editor gives it a fast review and might sent it back to the journal editor, if it is not that specialty or reject it if there are some obvious problems: format or poor English
  6. The specialty editor sends it to two or three reviewers, all experts that have been approved by the editorial board of the journal
  7. Each reviewer reads the article, makes comments and individually accepts, rejects or requests revisions and sends it back to the specialty editor
  8. The specialty editor compiles these comments and makes a decision about the article
  9. I have never heard of an article that did not need some revisions, so if the article is to be published, it now goes back to the author for revisions.
  10. It is then resubmitted, by the author
  11. Then it is re-reviewed by the specially editor and sent back to the reviewers if warranted
  12. Then back to the author for another round of revisions

The journal editor may be employed by the journal, but the specially editors and the reviewers are usually not employed by the journal and have full-time jobs doing something besides reviewing. At each step, a submitted article is likely to lay in someone's "In basket" for weeks or months. As a practical matter, six months would be very fast for an article to make it from the initial author's submission to the article being "accepted." 12 to 18 months is more likely. Then it is put in the queue for some journal publication in, at best, several months. In general, the process weeds out "poor science." The reviewers rip apart unfounded conclusions, sloppy or incomplete work.

On the next page we will talk more about using this literature and its inclusion in your paper for this course and your professional decisions.


Module 3 Index