Webb’s Scientific Method, What to Expect

Right now, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is in space capturing spectacular images and spectrum of the universe; all of these data reside in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the science operations center for Webb. However, it takes time for these exciting new observations to make their way from raw data to published, peer-reviewed science.

Peer Review
Scientific peer review is a long-established, quality-control system, where new scientific discoveries are scrutinized by experts before they are published in a journal. The peer review process begins when a scientist or group of scientists completes a study of a particular object in the sky and then submits their written findings to an accredited journal for publication. The journal’s editors will then circulate the article to other scientists within the same field to gather their reviews and feedback. Only articles that meet good scientific standards, acknowledging and building upon other known works, make it through this process and are published in the journal. NASA relies on this peer-review process to ensure quality and accuracy of scientific results before sharing them with the public.

Since Webb’s discoveries are so new, they require time to be vetted by the peer-review process, and a pipeline of articles under peer review is growing as the telescope continues to make observations from its first year of planned science. This pipeline of articles will feed future Webb news as scientists with peer-reviewed articles submit their findings to the STScI news office for consideration for promotion.

Many Webb investigators, however, are also taking advantage of the way that the scientific publication landscape has changed in the last decade. They create draft papers that are sometimes publicly posted as “preprints” before the full peer-review process is complete. This previewing stage allows for discussion within the science community, and researchers sometimes use this feedback to improve their written papers before they formally submit to a journal. At this stage, papers, imagery, figures, and initial analyses are public – but not yet considered part of the fully peer-reviewed scientific literature.

NASA and STScI, in collaboration with the science community, may share some imagery or spectra from papers prior to peer review, much like the recently published exoplanet images, as well as images from Webb data publicly available in the MAST archive. Those shared, but still awaiting peer review, will be labeled appropriately to describe where in the process the image or data and results are. Important scientific conclusions and discoveries from these images will be shared later, after peer review.

What to Expect
Starting the week of Sep. 19, NASA will share a new Webb image or spectrum at least every other week. Check the Webb blog every other Monday to find out when to expect that week’s image.

NASA will also hold media availability calls with subject matter experts as needed to answer questions about the latest images, spectra, and science from Webb.

-Thaddeus Cesari, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


News Media Contacts

Alise Fisher
Headquarters, Washington

Laura Betz
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.