The importance of understanding the particular methods used (whether field-specific or general) is signaled in some publications by a “methods section” that describes the procedures used to derive a result. In some print journals, methods sections are being squeezed by pressures to cut costs, though conventionally sized or longer methods sections may be available in supplementary material online. Researchers also may abbreviate methods sections to keep some procedures private in order to obscure the processes used to derive data.
To some extent, researchers must simply trust that other researchers have adhered to the methods accepted in a field of scientific, engineering, or medical research. Sometimes it is impossible to specify in enough detail the procedures used to gather or generate data so that others will get exactly the same results. In such cases, assistance from the original researcher may be necessary for other researchers to replicate or extend earlier results.
The importance of understanding the methods of collecting or generating the data emphasizes the importance of understanding the context of data. Most data cannot be properly interpreted without at least some—and frequently detailed—understanding of the procedures, instruments, and processing used to generate those data. Thus, data integrity depends critically on communicating to other researchers and to the public the context in which data are generated and processed.
Of all the social processes used to maintain the integrity of the research enterprise, the most prominent is peer review of articles submitted to a scholarly journal for publication. Review of submitted articles by the authors’ peers screens for quality and relevance and helps to ensure that professional standards have been maintained in the collection and analysis of data. It provides a forum in which the collective standards of a field can be not only negotiated but enforced, because of the researchers’ interests in having their results published. Peer review examines whether research questions have been framed and addressed properly, whether findings are original and significant, and whether a paper is clearly written and acknowledges previous work. Peer review also organizes research results so that the most important research appears in specific journals, which allows for more effective communication.
Because peer review is such an effective tool in quality control, it also is used in evaluating researchers. Researchers are judged for purposes of hiring and promotion largely on the basis of publication in peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, publication in these journals remains the most important way to disseminate quality-controlled contributions to knowledge. The number of peer-reviewed journals is continuing to grow, and importance of peer review has not diminished during the digital era.