The scientific process follows a distinct path from hypothesis (idea) to established knowledge.
Identification of a specific idea is the first step. This may be an original idea, the result of other background research or based on anecdotal reports.
The hypothesis is developed following research to find out what is already known about the observation. The hypothesis is then used to make predictions of probable effects that can be tested by experiment.
Conducting a well-designed experiment is the most important step of the process. Much effort is made at this stage to properly design or “control” the experiment so that other external factors (“confounders”) cannot influence the outcome. The resulting data is analysed and the hypothesis is rejected or modified if not supported by the experimental outcome.
Researchers report preliminary findings at conferences to share knowledge and obtain feedback. Interim results presented at conferences have generally not benefited from peer review and should be interpreted with caution.
- Peer Review:
During peer review the study design and results are critically examined by one or more reviewers with expertise in the subject. The journal editor selects the reviewers and peer review is usually conducted anonymously. Reviewers may recommend acceptance, amendment or rejection of the research paper. Peer review is important for quality control of research claims. However, not all published research is without flaws and the quality of peer review varies across journals. The process of submission, review, amendment and resubmission may take several months.
Following acceptance the paper will be prepared for publication and assigned to a future issue of the journal. Increasingly, accepted research papers are made available on-line before appearing in the print journal. After it appears, other scientists may comment on the results by writing to the journal and the researchers can choose whether to respond.
Results may be further tested by independent replication. Independent replication is essential to minimising the effects of potential personal and experimental bias. The follow-up studies may try to duplicate the original study (direct replication) or try to improve some aspect of the experimental conditions (confirmation study). If the original results are confirmed then greater weight is given to the hypothesis.
- Established Knowledge:
The results of many experiments are compared through a weight of evidence approach (see our booklet on this topic). This is not simply a case of counting publications, individual peer reviewed studies are examined and their strengths and weaknesses noted. This allows overall conclusions to be formed about the strength of the evidence for the hypothesis and a consensus of what is established knowledge about a subject.