Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Exposing Undergraduates to the Scientific Literature

In most biochemistry and molecular biology departments it has become almost an article of faith that part of a good undergraduate education involves exposing senior students to the latest papers in the scientific literature. These departments will mount several advanced undergraduate courses that focus on reading and discussing the latest papers in a field. The idea is to go beyond the textbooks and show students how science really works.

Nobody seems to ask the obvious question. How do experienced scientists go about reading the latest papers and how do they distinguish the wheat from the chaff? Given that much of the current literature is wrong or misleading, what is the value of getting undergraduates to read it without giving them the tools to read critically?

And where are the experts who can teach them how to interpret the literature? Has the average graduate student mastered the task? From my observations, I'd say probably not. Where do we get the idea that typical undergraduates can do it productively?

There's another problem. You need to have a solid foundation in basic concepts in order to appreciate and understand the latest technologies and the latest scientific advances. Often these foundations are sacrificed in order to expose undergraduates to the cutting edge research. This is because students can only take so many courses and in complex disciplines like biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology there are so many fundamental concepts that we barely have enough time to cover them all.

In an ideal world we would cover all the basic concepts and also give students an opportunity to do a research project where they gain experience in reading the latest results in a specific field under the guidance of an experienced mentor.


  1. "Given that much of the current literature is wrong or misleading..."
    Whoa, do you have evidence to support this premise? I accept that there are a few crappy papers here and there, but "much of the current literature"?

    Other than that, I pretty much agree with the rest of what you say.

  2. Of course, you can start with the assumption that, though difficult to approach, most primary literature is well within the capabilities of an interested and enthusiastic undergrad, and with a little focus and creativity, you can end up with products like these:

  3. I don't think it happens at all in undergrad. I didn't start reading deeply into literature until the first and second years of grad school, and this happened by necessity. It's only when you start trying to come up with new research that you realize you have to find out about all that has come before you so that you don't reinvent the wheel. I make use of the citation alert features of most literature databases. First you read the "classic" papers in your field and read the papers that cited those papers. After that, you can create citation alerts for all those first papers you read and you get an email each time a new paper comes out that cited one of those older papers. That way you're kept up-to-date on what's going on in your field in all journals. Of course, it takes a while to build up a good library of citation alerts. I have about 1000 and that took me five years over the course of grad school and only now do I feel that I have a small grasping of how it all fits together (I study biological membranes, so that's all I really can say I'm an expert on, and even that's stretching it). I think the main point is, as Dr. Moran points out, it takes a long time to develop a sense of what's a good or bad publication and that skill can only be attained by constantly making an effort to learn the old stuff as well as the new stuff. If anything, the universities could do a better job of teaching undergrads how to search the literature in libraries and online databases. I had none of that in my undergrad and had to learn it on my own. Doing that would also reduce the undergraduate reliance on wikipedia as the sole source of information that is science related.

  4. I completely agree with anonymous 5:26. I think reading has to become a necessity before a student can truly get a handle on sifting through scientific literature. You mentioned the undergrads doing a research project, which I think is a brilliant idea. I think people learn much more when they NEED to do something rather than HAVE to do it. I liked southernfried's ideas, but learning how to read one paper doesn't make them a master at understanding the literature including what is good and bad.

  5. From what I know, the practice you describe is not very common in undergrad education but is ubiquitous in the graduate school. In either case, it is a total bullshit and a waste of everyone's time.

    The origin of the idea is very simple: The system as we know it does not select teachers based on teaching abilities. Then the poor teachers offer a pastiche of textbook material (because it's easy) and the latest and greatest in the current literature (because that's what they really know).

  6. Are we talking about reading papers that are potentially high-impact research for general knowledge, or specific papers targeted to a project? A "chaff" paper can still employ sloppy methods but still be used to guide future research if there is applicable data published. Maybe this is beyond most undergrad experience, though.

    I took an undergraduate class where we critiqued a semi-classic paper in the field of cell biology. This meant that it came with some assurances of quality, but it still took some time to figure out the importance of the research, weed through the mess that is nomenclature in the molecular sciences, and really understand the nature of the work that brought the researchers to their findings, often not appreciated until after the fact. This whole exercise was enlightening, but I feel that many of my peers did not get the same experience that I did. I don't know how that might be changed.

  7. Anon @ 6:01 put it quite well: "I think people learn much more when they NEED to do something rather than HAVE to do it" I think this is what makes classroom learning rather ineffective - even being interested in the general subject is not enough to really understand the material -- you need a dire need to do so.

    This is my third year in research as an undergrad, and just now I'm slowly beginning to get a feel of how to read papers. This is after having read probably around a hundred or so of those things: some out of pure curiosity, many for distinct research purposes. It definitely feels like I retain much more when reading for immediate research purposes rather than idle curiosity, even if I'm personally more interested in the latter.

    There's been a few classes where we were made to read papers, and it feels rather useless (especially compared to real experience). Mostly the emphasis is on reading and paraphrasing the author, since you're apparently not allowed to form opinions until you've secured a faculty position. I think that is a very flawed approach -- it teaches students to be passive acceptors of whatever fate/the prof throws at them -- exactly what we DON'T want in any education! This does the exact opposite of empowerment!

    They should encourage *critical* reading, and that doesn't come easy. You can't teach thinking in one lecture -- one must practise it like any other art. Students should be asked not just to paraphrase the abstract, but to write a commentary on the subject -- branch out into other literature and use that to respond to the paper in question. This at least begins to somewhat mimic the actual research process, and should be accessible to any undergrad.

    I've a long ways to go to effectively recognise chaff, but I am beginning to find mistakes and fallacies in scientific literature, and that feels quite empowering - you realise that the authors, despite their many degrees and distinctions, are human just like the rest of us. They make mistakes, and you CAN talk back to them!

    Anyway, just my [long, sorry!] two cents...


  8. I haven't read all the comments yet, but I was "formally" exposed to the literature in the final year of my undergraduate. The format was small courses of perhaps up to a dozen students. The "lecturer" might give a short (say, 20 minute) introduction to the broad area, then provide us with a list of papers. A few of these we were required to read. We were expected to choose for ourselves from the remainder on the list and furthermore extend on this to papers not on the list on our own. The next meeting (usually a few days or a week later) we were to discuss what we'd found as a group, with each individual presenting what angles they'd picked up, etc. The staff member would comment how not just the conclusion drawn, but how we arrived at them, etc.

    Occasionally we were thrown a few weaker papers in the required reading to see if we'd pick up the flaws in them.

    Just to be clear, while most of these papers were on the better end of the scale, they weren't all "classics", but rather "relevant" to the topic at hand.

    This doesn't give you that fine "nose" for rubbish that long-term study of a narrow field does, but it does make you read the papers, dissecting them, prodding what conclusions can really be drawn and what are a bit weak and what should really shouldn't have been claimed as conclusions.

    We also did a small research project that year, but I forget now how the literature fell in with that.

  9. So a while ago I got an email from MGYSU asking what I, as an MGY specialist student, thought of this aweful program. I've been waiting to get my thoughts out in the open. I honestly don't care if anyone reads this-- just needed to let loose. Cuz joining this department has been one of the biggest mistakes of my life.