The world is awash with scientific papers. Even if we restricted a survey to research within biological sciences, I guestimate that there are more papers published each month than your average academic could be expected to read in a lifetime. In these rich fields of information, how are students unfamiliar with the genre to develop the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff (let alone the weeds)?
At the University of Leicester, we have a task for undergraduates, conducted towards the end of their second year, in which they produce a poster describing a particular research method (selected from a short list relevant to their chosen discipline). As part of the exercise, the students need to choose a primary research article which illustrates one application of that method.
It is fair to say that many of the students initially struggle to select an appropriate paper*. There are several reoccurring problems:
- Failure to distinguish between a research article and a review
- Failure to recognise that all journals are not equal in terms of their academic quality and rigour of the work they publish
- Selection of papers that do not really utilise the technique that should be the focus of their poster.
In truth, the ability to select the right kind of paper is one of the important learning outcomes from this exercise; these students will commence their final year dissertations immediately after they return from summer vacation and need to avoid wasting hours reading papers that are not worthy of their attention. However, since I frequently find myself making the same points in email correspondence with individual students, I felt it was worth using this forum to share some of my overarching reflections on the fine art of finding appropriate research articles.
Research Article or Review?
When we’ve been involved in academia for many years, knowing whether a paper is a primary research paper or a review comes as second nature. This is not necessarily true for inexperienced students. In their defence, the variation of the naming of research articles in different journals does not help. Cell and EMBO Journal call them “Articles”. Nature also has “Articles” but the majority of original research is labelled as “Letters” and in Science primary literature is mostly “Reports” .
Although it ought to be possible to spot a research article by the sub-sections it contains (i.e. Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, etc…) these are not necessarily given the same names in all journals, and the order in which they included can be different. Of course, if the journal has the word “Review”, “Trends in…” or “Current opinions in…” then it is likely to include, almost exclusively, articles summarising the research of other scientists rather than containing original reports of new experiments . But in other journals a review might actually be called “Perspectives”, “Commentary” or “News and Views” to name but three.
Review articles as a mean to an end
For the specific activity we set our students (finding a primary research paper that demonstrates the use of a particular technique), reviews are not going to be a suitable destination. This does not mean, however, that review articles are of no merit in the search for good quality experimental data. In some senses, the authors of a review article have done crucial legwork for you. Already experts in the field, they have read broadly about the topic and will then have selected what they consider to be the most significant recent experiments for their reflections. Looking at the reference list in a review can therefore be an efficient way to shine a light on the best primary literature.
Is it a good paper?
If you are not familiar with a research technique or particular discipline, how can you know whether a paper is a “good” paper? There are three useful clues. The first is the one we have just described, namely do authors of reviews rate the work as worthy of their attention?
Secondly, where has it been published? Like it or not, there is a hierarchy of journals; some titles are in the Premier League, some are in the Championship, and some are non-league. Experienced heads know that research published in Nature, Science, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and EMBO Journal is considered (usually with some justification) to be more worthy than papers coming out in the Journal of Knitting and Spectroscopy, but recognising this is, once again, an aspect of the maturing of undergraduates into fully-fledged scientists.
Thirdly, how many times has the work been cited by other researchers? If work has been in circulation for fifteen years but has only been quoted twice during that period, and both times by the author of the original paper, then it is fair to conclude that it did not contain ground-breaking discoveries. One of the useful features of Web of Knowledge is the citation count. If you don’t have access to Web of Knowledge, Google Scholar has a similar (though slightly less rigorous) feature.
Finally, if you want to refine a search so that it is restricted to only those “Premier league” journals name above, then why not go to a journal’s own search engine rather than, or in addition to, a more generic search tool? (e.g. for Nature, for Science).
* Note, if you are wondering how this squares with my recent description of a source evaluation exercise for first years, I need to point out that this is NOT the same cohort.