finding suitable references

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 🙂

8 thoughts on “finding suitable references”

  • Yes, access is a real problem for someone who doesn’t have institutional rights. Being retired I miss the almost complete access to stuff I used to have.
    Mind you, I am surprise how many journals do allow free access – but it’s always the paper you specially want to see the full text for that doesn’t.
    Perhaps someone should be pressing for schools and similar low resourced educational bodies having some sort of limited access. Or perhaps schools could be “adopted” by universities or research institutes to enable access coverage. Its the sort of thing that would have to come from current subscribers, but perhaps schools could be pressuring those.

  • Great information Alison – thanks it is very useful. Just what my students need at the moment. Sometimes they have difficulty finding peer reviewed articles and sometimes they have difficulty finding ones that they can read & understand. It would be good to have more access though as they keep bringing me abstracts. My students did venture up to the university by themselves looking for journals. They said they were locked aways for the building programme.It was a good experience for them though.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Glad to hear it’s useful. I’ll see if I can find that paper on how to read a paper (!) – I use it with my own classes but there’s some useful stuff in it that your students would find helpful as well. It can be a bit daunting to be faced with a scientific paper for the first time & be expected to make sense of it all 🙂
    If there are a couple of papers that your girls particularly want, send me the details & I’ll see what can be done.

  • I’m now wary of popular science magasines, having seen far too many gaffes fro them. It seems a number of the writers aren’t scientists, and those that are, are often writing off their specific knowledge base. A number of articles, while derived from the primary science literature suffer from the author starting with a “line” they wish to pursue, which they do, but fail to provide the larger context the work described fell within, with the upshot that what the present ends up being out of context. Most people resolve this by first outlining the broarder field, but because these authors don’t really know the broarder field well enough (that’s my guess), they just present their “line” without the context. (The NewScientist article on horizontal gene transfer comes to mind. All the examples given are true, but have no context for a naïve reader to know the extent that they occur: what species, and how often, etc.)
    I’m also affected by the lack of open access, as I work independently of the universities, etc. In fact this is almost the most difficult aspect for me, as my work is very dependent on keeping very up-to-date on developments.
    Another twist on this, is that some universities (used to?) have access for alumini/former staff at the cost of an annual subscription to the library. My memory was that Canterbury University did this for $500 p.a. quite a few years ago. I would be quite happy to pay the likes of that sum if it gave me full access to all the publications the local university hosts, but they claim they can’t owed to pressure from the publishers to limit the access to those who are currently staff, etc. Bullies! 🙂 More pragmatically, it seems silly to me, as the publishers aren’t going to gain money by blocking access to people who can’t afford their subscriptions.
    Many journals now offer open source articles alongside their “at cost” ones if the authors (or rather their institutions) cough up a fee. (I’m not familiar with the details.) This is the case for PNAS, for example.
    The NIH is apparently (trying to) make it so that all their scientists’ publications will be open source.

  • Hi Alison and others,
    Schools have free access to the ERIC database which then allows access to a wide range of article and publication databases (Under Science there is General OneFile,MasterFILE Premier and ProQuest Science Journals). I don’t think every scientific journal will be accessible as this is intended for school students but a quick look at the Publication list in ProQuest Science Journals showed a huge number of journals.
    This is an iniative of the National Library, so school librarians should know about it and have the information on how to log in for each school. If they don’t know about it, then ask them to register the school. It’s being funded by the MoE (until March 2009 according to the website!)

  • Alison Campbell says:

    On the access issue – I spoke to our Moodle administrator today & she said it would be straightforward for them to set up a Moodle page for school students/teachers. This would then let me make papers available to that group as part of their teaching. I will look into it further as it did sound like the answer to Gail’s problem.
    But I hope people will also follow up on the info from Michal – at the very least it will let students identify suitable papers. The problem could well still be with actual access, however.

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