Reading scientific papers is difficult, especially when you are new to a field. At our program for high school students, Future Science Leaders, we are trying to give them useful tools for their future as scientists and innovators so reading primary research papers is an obvious choice. But how to do it?
I don’t really remember how I learned to read primary papers. I remember being awed by them as an undergrad and early grad student. My supervisor dumped a stack of papers on my desk with an unreasonable (I thought) expectation of discussing them in 3 days. I was still approaching papers as facts to cram in my head and not as a bunch of connected information. I think after that marathon session, I started approaching papers as proper reference material. So, I thought we should just try reading some papers. I got some ideas from Snow and Science where he introduced reading papers to undergraduate students. This post will outline what we did and I’d love some suggestions on how to do it better next year.
Spoiler alert: students can read papers, especially when motivated.
Our first step was to talk about scientific papers in general terms. We defined a paper as a means to share scientific results and experimental design. To help understand the parts of a paper, we discussed scientific papers as movie productions. There were some interesting observations from the students, including:
- Some students mentioned that these results are definitely for fellow experts because they seem so complicated.
- Another student observation was that papers should be free for everyone to read and critique. (More evidence that targeting the next generation for Open Access is viable.)
But how did we start reading papers?
Step 1 – Cookie Quality
We had a wonderful paper to start: Effects of Corn Sweeteners on Cookie Quality from 1984. We started with this because baking is accessible but there can be many things measured.
The students were split into groups to fill in this chart for one variable. They basically went through the introduction, materials & methods, results and discussion for one of the following variables:
- dough stickiness
- cookie spread
- spreading rate and set time
- water loss
- surface cracking
- cookie snap
This worked well. It allowed students to see how one variable is treated in each different section of the paper. The students shared their findings and we got a sense of what high fructose corn syrup did to cookies.
Several students commented that the materials and methods were unnecessarily complicated. For example, the measurement for dough stickiness used the ‘Instron Universal Testing Machine (model 1122)’ and when they set out to research it in their limited time, they got into a rabbit hole of having to look up more and more information. Several of the mentors commented that Materials and Methods can be somewhat of a scavenger hunt, going through multiple references to find out what was actually done. More than one student thought that was unfair because it takes too much effort and expertise to figure out how the work was done and therefore if the work is done well.
Step 2 – recent paper in the news
We then moved to a bigger challenge – reading a recent paper that had been discussed by Emily Willingham in ADHD, Fish and Mercury Exposure During Pregnancy — What’s the Connection? We had copies of the original paper, Sagiv et. al (2012) Prenatal Exposure to Mercury and Fish Consumption During Pregnancy and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder–Related Behavior in Children (paywall). We chose this paper because it was topical, important and the paper should be understandable to non-experts like these students. Plus, Emily’s analysis could help students see how the paper fit into previous research.
In the same groups as the cookie quality paper, the students were assigned one part of the original paper to put into plain language. It became apparent that to truly understand one section, you had to read everything to get the context of your section. The students dove into their sections and wrote the information in simpler language. I complied the sections into the
Several students found this exercise frustrating and not worth the time that it took to understand the material. They would rather read a review of the article (such as the one at Forbes) than slogging through the paper. In discussion, they agreed that to do future experiments, the original paper should be understood and that there are often nuances that don’t make it into press release or story about the original work. It highlighted to me the importance of the science communicator because future scientists are relying on their articles to understand new science being done.
We also found a blog that suggested a link between high fructose corn syrup and the ADHD mercury paper = a nice way to tie things together and talk about how papers can be portrayed by different groups.
What would I change?
In future years, I don’t think I’d provide the Forbes article until after the students prepared their version of the paper because a few students mentioned that it helped them shape how they approached the material. That did lead to a good discussion on what would be a good way to make this science interesting to the average person. In future years, I might try to ask the students to create a blog post about the paper, highlighting what is important and why.
I also think that I would add step 1a because the jump from the cookie paper to the ADHD & mercury paper was too big. I’m not sure what to do though – I’m open to suggestions.