Nature, Science and PNAS

For a broader class of publications, which include scientific journals, see Academic journal
For a discussion of the general structure and use of methods of communication in science, see Scientific literature

In academic publishing, a scientific journal is a periodical publication intended to further the progress of science, usually by reporting new research. Most journals are highly specialized, although some of the oldest journals such as Nature publish articles and scientific papers across a wide range of scientific fields. Scientific journals contain articles that have been peer-reviewed, in an attempt to ensure that articles meet the journal's standards of quality, and scientific validity. Although scientific journals are superficially similar to professional magazines, they are actually quite different. Issues of a scientific journal are rarely read casually, as one would read a magazine. The publication of the results of research is an essential part of the scientific method; they generally must supply enough details of an experiment that an independent researcher could repeat the experiment to verify the results. Each such journal article becomes part of the permanent scientific record.

The history of scientific journals dates from 1665, when the French Journal des sçavans and the English Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society first began systematically publishing research results. Over a thousand, mostly ephemeral, were founded in the 18th century, and the number has increased rapidly after that. (D. A. Kronick, "History of Scientific and Technical Periodicals," 2nd ed. Scarecrow, 1976)

These articles are used both in research, and in graduate education. Many classes are partially devoted to the explication of classic articles, and seminar classes usually consist of the presentation by each student of a classic or current paper. In a scientific research group or academic department it is usual for the content of current scientific journals to be discussed in journal clubs.

The standards that a journal uses to determine publication can vary widely. Some journals, such as Nature, Science, PNAS or Physical Review Letters, will not publish an article unless they believe that it marks a fundamental breakthrough in its field, and hence will reject papers which contain good work that does not meet this criterion. In many fields, an informal hierarchy of scientific journals exists; the most prestigious journal in a field tends to be the most selective in terms of the articles it will select for publication. It is also common for journals to have a regional focus, specializing in publishing papers from a particular country or other geographic region.

Articles tend to be highly technical, representing the latest theoretical research and experimental results in the field of science covered by the journal. They are often incomprehensible to anyone except for researchers in the field and advanced students. In some subjects this is inevitable given the nature of the content.

Types of articles

There are several types of journal articles; the exact terminology and definitions vary by field and specific journal, but often include:

  • Letters (also called communications, and not to be confused with letters to the editor) are short descriptions of important current research findings which are usually fast-tracked for immediate publication because they are considered urgent.
  • Articles are usually between five and twenty pages and are a complete descriptions of current original research finding, but there are considerable variations between scientific fields and journals: 80-page articles are not rare in mathematics or theoretical computer science.
  • Supplemental articles contain a large volume of tabular data that is the result of current research and may be dozens or hundreds of pages with mostly numerical data. Some journals now only publish this data electronically on the internet.
  • Review articles do not cover original research but rather accumulate the results of many different articles on a particular topic into a coherent narrative about the state of the art in that field. Examples of reviews include the 'Nature Reviews' series of journals and the 'Trends in' series, which invite experts to write on their specialisation and then have the article peer-reviewed before accepting the article for publication. Other journals, such as the Current Opinion series, are less rigorous in peer-reviewing each article and instead rely on the author to present an accurate and unbiased view. Review articles provide information about the topic, and also provide journal references to the original research.
  • Research notes are short descriptions of current research findings which are considered less urgent or important than Letters

The formats of journal articles vary, but almost always follow the following general scheme. They begin with an abstract, which is a one-to-four-paragraph summary of the paper. The introduction describes the background for the research including a discussion of similar research. The materials and methods or experimental section provides specific details of how the research was conducted. The results and discussion section describes the outcome and implications of the research, and the conclusion section places the research in context and describes avenues for further exploration.

In addition to the above, some scientific journals such as Science will include a news section where scientific developments (often involving political issues) are described. These articles are often written by science journalists and not by scientists. In addition some journals will include an editorial section and a section for letters to the editor. While these are articles published within a journal, they are not generally regarded as scientific journal articles because they have not been peer-reviewed.

Electronic publishing

It has been argued that peer-reviewed paper journals are in the process of being replaced by electronic publishing, in its various forms.

One form is the online equivalent of the conventional paper journal. By 2006, almost all scientific journals have, while retaining their peer-review process, established electronic versions; a number have even moved entirely to electronic publication. Most academic libraries, similarly, buy the electronic version, and purchase a paper copy only for the most important or most used titles.

There is usually a delay of several months after an article is written before it is published in a journal and this makes paper journals not an ideal format for announcing the latest research. Many journals now publish the final papers in their electronic version as soon as they are ready, without waiting for the assembly of a complete issue, as is necessary in paper. In many fields where even greater speed is wanted, such as physics, the role of the journal at disseminating the latest research has largely been replaced by preprint databases such as Almost all such articles are eventually published in traditional journals, which still provide an important role in quality control, archiving papers, and establishing scientific credit.


Many scientists and librarians have long protested the cost of journals, especially as they see these payments going to large for-profit publishing houses. To allow their researchers online access to journals, universities generally purchase site licenses, permitting access from anywhere in the university--and, with appropriate authorization, by university-affiliated users at home or elsewhere. These may be quite expensive, sometimes much more than the cost for a print subscription. Publication by scholarly societies, also known as not-for-profit-publishers (NFP), usually has lower costs than commercial publishers, but the prices of their scientific journals are still usually several thousand dollars a year.

Concerns about cost and open access have led to the creation of free-access journals such as the Public Library of Science family and partly-open or reduced-cost journals such as the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP).

An article titled "Online or Invisible?" (see below) has used statistical arguments to claim that open access electronic publishing provides wider dissemination.


In most cases, the author of an article is required to transfer the copyright to the journal publisher. Publishers claim this is necessary in order to protect author's rights, and to coordinate permissions for reprints or other use. Many authors, especially those active in the open access movement, find this unsatisfactory, and would prefer a situation in which they give the publisher an irrevocable license to publish, but retain the other rights themselves.

Even while retaining the copyright to an articles, most journals allow certain rights to their authors. These rights usually include the ability to reuse parts of the paper in the author's future work, and allow him to distribute a limited number of copies. In the print format, such copies are called reprints; in the electronic format they are called postprints. Some publishers, for example the American Physical Society also grant the author the right to post and update the article on the author's or employer's website and on free e-print servers, to grant permission to others to use or reuse figures, and even to reprint the article as long as no fee is charged.[1] The rise of open access journals, in which the author retains the copyright but must pay a publication charge, such as the Public Library of Science family of journals is another recent response to copyright concerns.

See also

To find related topics in a list, see List of scientific journals.

External links