Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 16 (March 1964): 16-17.

Some ethical questions concerning the publication of research articles are discussed. (1) In determining when one should publish scientific results, publication should be considered a part of the age-old philosophers' conversation. Editors' decisions concerning what is and what is not published ought not to depend (even in the. present period of rapid growth in scientific output)' upon space availability and cost of publishing. (2) Criticisms concerning the anonymity of referees seem to have some merit. (3) Ideally the Christian should carry out scientific work because God commands him to, and not for scientific advancement. Therefore, he ought not to be anxious about the amount of credit he receives for his work.

One of the growing pains attending the rapid expansion of science in this century is the "publishing problem." The situation is more correctly defined as a series of problems caused by the very large increase in the number of scientific articles written in recent years. Some questions related to publishing in any period, regardless of the total number of articles written, are ethical questions of special interest to the Christian. These questions are of acute interest in this present rapid growth period. Probably there will be trouble if good answers are not given. I would like to suggest answers to three of these questions.


Someone said that every time a philosopher speaks he enters into a conversation which has continued for millenia. Our sciences are branches on the philosophical tree, so in a very real sense scientific publications are parts of this philosophical conversation, even though it now has so many sub-conversations that participants can understand only a very small percentage of the contributions of others.

The problem of when to publish is no different from other conversations: one should say something when he has.something worth saying. What of the person who divides his work into small pieces in order that he obtain a larger number of publications? This policy does not make for smooth, sensible conversation. Perhaps the piecemeal author is a little too proud. I

*Dr. Maatman is Prof. of Chemistry, Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.

believe, however-after surveying the chemical literature of a generation ago-that this problem is no larger now than it was before the period of extremely rapid growth began.

Nor is it very helpful for those listening to this philosophical conversation if the worker is pontifically deliberate, refusing to speak until the project is complete in every imaginable sense of the word. Helpfulness is a Christian virtue, and the Christian ought to want to tell others what he has discovered at the earliest possible time, enabling them to build upon his work. Much of the very long lag between discovery and publication is not the fault of the individual worker; he ought not to be even partially the cause of the lag problem.

When to publish depends upon the motives of the individual. If he enjoys working with what God has created, he wants to tell others about his findings. Is this his primary motivation, or is he motivated by possible advancement in position, prestige, and financial status? If there is a tougher ethical problem facing the scientist, I would like to know what it is. But if the scientist really has a Christian world-and-life view and has overcome the temptation of working for advancement, then he will naturally do the right thing about the twin evils of publication multiplication and publication postponement.

Some of these bad practices are the very ones which some use as excuses for investigating nothing of what God has created. How many times have we heard of someone who didn't want to engage in research because many articles are trivial or incomplete or because many publish merely to get ahead? Perhaps these are excuses for laziness.


Here feelings run high. Who is to play God? Who is to determine whether or not a manuscript should be allowed to contribute to the age-old conversation? If there is any subject about which scientists are emotional, it is this.

Before we can say who will judge, we ought to know what criteria the judges should use. I think that many associated with publishing are not clear on this point. Isn't it true that there is only one good criterion the judges should use? Isn't it a necessary and sufficient condition that a piece of work add to scientific knowledge?

Yet there are journals that admit that year after year they reject many articles which do add to scientific knowledge, but for which no space is available. I would rather see a journal be mimeographed, and containing all articles submitted which add to scientific knowledge, than see it appear in a relatively expensive format, but omitting some positive contributions. Should not scientists be insistent on this point? Article content is infinitely more important than journal format. Christians ought not to confuse a principle, the principle that all good work (and good work is sacred) must be published, with the practical problem of what method of duplication the printer is to use. One of the more foolish things our civilized society can do is to allow journal format to be a rate-determining factor in the growth of science.

When put that way, of course, we realize that the format really need not suffer. There is no intrinsic reason why the cost (in real dollars) of publication of a scientific article in 1964 should be more than, say, in 1930. Of course, a library which attempts to be complete in its coverage of, for example, organic chemistry, may need to buy fifty articles in 1964 instead of a single one in 1930. Presumably such a library will serve more organic chemists now; but at any rate this particular problem is the user's, not the publisher's.

I wonder if much of the unrest over what is to be published would not be eliminated if it were agreed once and for all that the only good criterion for publication is whether or not an article adds to scientific knowledge. Perhaps it is characteristic of our age to confuse principles with the means of implementing them. The scientist who is a Christian ought, I believe, to consider addition to scientific knowledge immensely important and not a matter to be confused with the practical means of disseminating knowledge. There is a real problem in disseminating knowledge when the number of qualified articles submitted increases rapidly, but such a problem ought to be solved in a way helping scientific progress in months, not decades. What would happen on election day if a polling place closed early because the voting machine could handle only three digit numbers and the 999th person had just voted?

Who is to decide what is an addition to scientific knowledge and what is not? Is the referee system a good one? Surely we cannot quarrel with the idea that specialists chosen by an editor pass - on a manuscript. Without some check, the philosopher's conversation would become babble. Yet the precise way in which referees are used has been criticized widely, and President Henry Eyring of the American Chemical Society in a presidential address agreed with many of the critics. He said that an editor "can't publish even all the acceptable papers that are submitted" and that he is therefore tempted "to send the paper to the severest critic on his staff of reviewers." He said that intemperate criticism is possible and that even Newton delayed publication because of it. He continued, "For the sensitive beginner caustic reviews can do real harm. There are too many potentially competent investigators who shy away from the ordeal of running the gauntlet of overzealous reviewers and either needlessly delay publication or, worse still, cut down on their research productivity." (Chem. and Eng. News, Sept. 30, 1963, p. 56).

If Eyring is correct-and I think it is fair to say that most chemists would accept his statement-then the work of chemists and perhaps other scientists (work dignified by God's command to carry it out) is often hurt by fellow-scientists. Eyring puts part of the blame on the referee system. He said, "If reviewers were given more recognition by urging them to sign their reviews, it would give the author the opportunity to acknowledge his indebtedness for constructive suggestions and it would encourage the reviewer to be more constructive in his approach to a difficult but valuable task." (Italics mine).

I think the question of referee anonymity is related to natural human tendencies. I believe Scripture teaches men are not innately good. When men assume that neither man nor God knows what they are doing, they are at their worst. They are almost as bad when they know about God but conveniently forget Him. They are somewhat better when only a few people know what they do. They usually act much more respectably when their deeds are public knowledge. Many of us have seen first-class pieces of work by anonymous referees. Haven't we been a little surprised at the work being first-class in spite of its anonymity?

I know that I tire of paper work piled high on my desk. It is a real achievement to get everything into the "Out" box. If one can dispose of one of these items of paper work anonymously, disposal is easier. Why do we tolerate the idea of anonymity in such a strange place?


If the Christian works for God and not for honor, he ought not to be very sensitive about the credit he receives. Yet he can be solicitous of the welfare of others in this matter. Some are not given proper credit for their achievements. Some are greedy and attempt to receive credit for what they have not done.

A research worker-let us call him A-told me of his troubles. He had carried out almost all the experimental work on a project. However, there had been a personality conflict with the research director (B), and at the eleventh hour B moved A's name from first to last in the list of authors. What was worse, thought A, was the simultaneous addition of the name of C, with C's knowledge, even though C had contributed very little. Isn't this the story of much of our scientific lives? Were any of these three exhibiting the Christian virtues of humility and generosity?

Perhaps chemistry and other young disciplines are too young to have well worked-out ethical principles which will give one good guide lines in solving these very practical problems. Even though scientific articles are part of the ancient philosophical conversation, these practical problems concerning the assignment of credit are in a certain way characteristically modern. Who should receive credit, in what order names should appear, and similar questions are not small, but many of us can be small as we give selfish answers.

In summary, it seems to me that ethical questions such as those mentioned are at present not answered by the objective methods scientists ought to use, but by the same sin-tainted methods the world uses to solve all ethical problems.