Sunday, July 26, 2009

Scientific Literature in Undergraduate Education

Larry Moran at Sandwalk asked a a few weeks back about how undergraduate education exposes students to scientific literature:

Exposing Undergraduates to the Scientific Literature


As a rough analogy, I liken the initial experience of learning of the scientific literature to landing in a foreign country and learning the language without guidance. One flounders around a lot, having difficulty with the simplest of tasks, and there’s a lot of exaggerated waving of hands involved. The process is tedious, frustrating, and difficult because there is not much help provided with regards to how to navigate the complex webwork of publications to find the information you need. And next thing you know you’re stuck in an Slovakian jail for reasons unknown. And your cellmate is starting to get just a little too friendly…


I’d say my own problems getting used to research in the literature stems from several places:

1. Newly published papers require a background of knowledge to understand that the initiate doesn’t have.

2. Old papers use obsolete methods, have hypotheses that may have been proven wrong, and use terminology that has been changed or discontinued. This is rarely ever corrected in the literature, one needs a background to know what to trust.

3. Licensing on papers makes finding information difficult as one can spend 10 minutes obtaining a paper just to discover it does not have the information needed.

4. Research takes time, and when deadlines loom, it becomes less and less reasonable to take the time and read through 10 papers to get the understanding needed. The focus often shifts to picking through and skimming for details, which doesn’t teach anything about proper research, and you’re left no better off.

When I consider the time I spent learning how to research (if you’re generous and assume that I actually can now), there aren’t many good memories. Much of my exposure comes from looking for specific facts in an obscure paper published in the 1960s. This sometimes comes as a result of being required to look up references that are obscure, just for the sake of reporting a technique that is widely accepted in practice today. I don’t know how many times I’ve referenced A rapid and sensitive method for the quantitation of microgram quantities of protein or Cleavage of structural proteins during the assembly of the head of bacteriophage T4.

It wasn’t until late in my undergrad when I really came to appreciate that the list of references on a paper are not just there to give credit, but more often to lead the readers to where previous information has been published, if desired. This basic idea of how the scientific publishing system works was never really introduced to me, and I went a long time before learning to properly follow the breadcrumbs to find the information I wanted.

So how might the process move more smoothly for undergrads in a course?

I’d say for beginners, a list of “classic” articles would go a long way to making things easier when looking for a reference on a technique or system. For a given project, a handout of some relevant papers could be provided. This would be pampering upper-year students, but certainly would help ease in new initiates.

To help get them familiar with the infrastructure and process of physically or digitally finding a paper, provide the information for the paper, but see that the students obtain the papers themselves (by, say, requiring method information from the paper). This would help ensure that students could learn to use respective web and library resources, hopefully before any real crunch time came down and the actual science had to be done.

In later classes, this list could be scaled back or removed, but in introductory science classes, this sort of help could be a useful way of easing into learning the system.

The problems with learning the literature are not just with learning to be a scientist and review papers, but largely just overcoming the technical, time-limited, and copyright-related drawbacks that come with the current system of publication. It is definitely not an easy system to jump into blindfolded, flailing around. Some basic guidance early on would go a long way.

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