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On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, Third Edition
control mechanisms, they risk weakening conventions that have served science well. In particular, peer review offers a valuable way of evaluating and improving the quality of scientific papers. Methods of communication that do not incorporate peer review or a comparable vetting process could reduce the reliability of scientific information.
There are several reasons why researchers should refrain from making results public before those results have been peer reviewed. If a researcher publicizes a preliminary result that is later shown to be inaccurate or incorrect, considerable effort by researchers can be wasted and public trust in the scientific community can be undermined. If research results are made available to other researchers or to the public before publication in a journal, researchers need to use some kind of peer review process that may compensate for the lack of the formal journal process. Moreover, researchers should be cautious about posting anything (such as raw data or figures) to a publicly accessible Web site if they plan to publish the material in a peer-reviewed journal. Some journals consider disclosure of information on a website to be “prior publication,” which could disqualify the investigator from subsequently publishing the data more formally.
Publication practices are susceptible to abuse. For example, researchers may be tempted to publish virtually the same research results in two different places, although most journals and professional societies explicitly prohibit this practice. They also may publish their results in “least publishable units”—papers that are just detailed enough to be published but do not give the full story of the research project described. These practices waste the resources and time of editors, reviewers, and readers and impose costs on the scientific enterprise. They also can be counterproductive if a researcher gains a reputation for publishing shoddy or incomplete work. Reflecting the importance of quality, some institutions and federal agencies have adopted policies that limit the number of papers that will be considered when an individual is evaluated for employment, promotion, or funding.