The other day I was talking with a friend who happens to be a high school bio teacher, & she said that it could be quite difficult for her students to do their research on the ‘contemporary issue’ (AS 90714). Not least because of the difficulty of getting hold of peer-reviewed articles on a student’s chosen topic. (This is in relation to the part of the standard – well, the explanatory note – that says "In research, the student collects and interprets information from mainly secondary sources. Use of primary sources is acceptable.) Hmmm, I thought, a good topic for a blog 🙂
I see from last year’s moderator’s report that information provided in the report needs to be specific eg you can’t say things like ‘some people think’ & should instead refer to particular, named scientists working in whatever field you’ve chosen as your topic. You also need to evaluate the sources. When one of my colleagues heard this they said, what the heck? Senior school students aren’t really in a position to evaluate the relevance or accuracy of a particular body of work! Well, no. But you can evaluate the significance/value of the source, in terms of how accurate its information is likely to be and how that information’s being used. And to do this you would look at when it was published, whether it’s been peer-reviewed, and whether or not the ideas it presents have widespread acceptance in the scientific community. (Date’s important. I wouldn’t rely on something published 20 years ago as a prime source of information on stem cells or xenotransplantation, for example!)
For example, you might have seen an item on (say) cloning in the newspaper. But as you know, this isn’t necessarily a reliable source of information. Even if it’s a report of a bona fide piece of research, and the reporter interviewed one of the scientists involved, they could still have got it wrong (it’s rare for scientists to get the opportunity to check a story before it goes to press). Or they might put a particular spin on it: ‘breakthrough of the year’ or something similar – certainly some media outlets seem to think that people won’t read a science story unless its couched in those terms. (That New Scientist story on Darwin, back in February, is just one example of this.)
So science magazine articles (maybe Scientific American or New Scientist) could be better. For a start, the journalist won’t have been writing to such a tight deadline & will have had a bit more time to delve more deeply into the story. These are what’s called ‘secondary’ sources – ‘popular’ reports of work that’s been published elsewhere. But it’s also good to use primary sources if you can – these are the peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. ‘Peer-reviewed’ means that a paper’s been assessed by a panel of independent referees, who look at things like the validity of its methodology, data, & discussion, & recommend to the editor whether or not the paper should be published. And yes, they also comment on how well it’s written! As I’m sure your teachers have said, while you might be studying biology, you’re communicating your ideas in English, and if you’re going to communicate accurately then your use of English also needs to be accurate.
And this is where my friend was getting frustrated – because many of these journals don’t have open access. You need either a private or an institutional subscription to be able to read them, & these are expensive. Her school is in Hamilton, so it’s possible for her students to come up to the uni library & find the articles they want that way. (Although more & more, we’re moving to electronic versions of the journals – I haven’t actually been to the library to get a journal out for a while now. So those wouldn’t be available either.) Quite how schools away from university centres get on, I don’t know.
But – all is not lost! Because some journals are open-access – anyone can go on-line & read the peer-reviewed papers that they publish. (Remember when you do the References section of your report, to cite them as journals & not as you would other websites.) One of them is one I use here: PLoS ONE – the ‘Public Library of Science’. It publishes papers on a wide range of topics & I’ve found some very interesting material there – even if the ‘Ida’ story was rushed… The other is the Journal of Biology: you have to register for this one but it’s free, & again, it publishes a whole range of material. I downloaded a couple of articles on the H1N1 flu the other day (& must sit down & write on them soon).
Of course, once you’ve found your paper, you have to read it… There are ways to determine quickly whether the paper is really going to be useful to you, and I guess I had better write about them fairly soon as well 🙂