Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
On-line version ISSN 2411-9717
JONES, R.T.. Presidential Address: Truth and error in scientific publishing. J. S. Afr. Inst. Min. Metall. [online]. 2015, vol.115, n.9, pp. 799-816. ISSN 2411-9717. http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2411-9717/2015/v115n9a1.
Scientific progress relies on the publication of ideas and experimental results that can be replicated, tested, and improved over time. The first printed book on metallurgy to have been published in Europe is considered to be De la Pirotechnia, written in Italian by Vannoccio Biringuccio, and published in Venice in 1540. Together with De Re Metallica, written by Georgius Agricola and published in Latin in 1556, this can be considered to mark the start of scientific and technical literature in this field. Scientific publishing of journal papers has been in existence for 350 years, since the world's oldest and longest-running scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was first published in London in 1665. The nature of scientific societies has changed significantly since the early days when regular meetings were held to discuss science and conduct experiments, and the reading of scientific papers took place, and publication of papers was undertaken to record the proceedings of meetings, often including rather robust debate. In today's world, there is a plethora of publications, and it is close to impossible for anyone to keep up with the vast flow of information. International conferences with hundreds of presentations have taken the place of the local meetings that used to discuss a single paper or experiment. In this frenetic environment, it is essential that researchers are able to trust the material they read. The system of peer review is used to maintain standards and to improve the quality of papers. This vital system is, however, significantly flawed. There is little incentive for reviewers to invest sufficient time in picking up all errors in publications, and any ineptitude on their part is usually protected by anonymity. It has reached the point where some reviewers have mistakenly permitted the publication of hoax papers deliberately presented with a complicated scientific facade. In light of such astounding inadequacies, perhaps a more open review process would be an improvement. Electronic publishing allows errata to be linked to the original papers. This might improve the current situation, where errors tend to be propagated from one paper to the next. There is an increasing trend towards open access for papers in scientific journals and conference proceedings, which helps to reach as wide an audience as possible. This also supports the statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says 'everyone has the right freely to ... share in scientific advancement and its benefits'. Various measures (including the impact factor) have been used to rate the performance of journals, while a count of citations (or the h-index) is often used to rate the performance of scientific authors. Some flaws in this approach have been highlighted. Scientific publishing remains alive and well, despite some problems and challenges. Electronic technology provides some wonderful opportunities to improve the way we communicate scientific results.