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Are recent developments in scholarly communication relevant to undergraduates?

August 24, 2009

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On a weekly basis, a new article or editorial comes out discussing the shifting paradigm of how scientists communicate with one another.  According to many, the journal article – the mainstay of scientific communication – is about to undergo a major metamorphosis as blogs and new journal concepts affect how science is done.  A recent report from the Science Online London 2009 conference exemplifies this.

I am very excited about these changes, and I spend some of my time checking out real-time science blogs like Useful Chemistry, participating on online science networks like Nature Network, and exploring what PLOS ONE has to offer.

But how relevant are all of these new changes to the average undergraduate?  Do they need to know about them?  If they don’t need to know now, will they in the near future?

Most of the writing assignments I’m seeing are still asking students to find traditional scholarly articles as the only sources for their papers.  Most of the faculty at my small undergraduate institution are still very traditional with regard to scholarly communication.  A (very) few faculty still have to be convinced that an online journal is acceptable, and I wrote an email a few months ago explaining that PLOS Medicine is a highly regarded journal.

Until a consensus develops around what is scholarly and what isn’t in the online world, how are undergraduate students (who still need help telling apart a review article and a piece of original research) supposed to navigate these on-going changes?

In the short term, I don’t think that undergraduates need to know a lot about these developments, beyond their own personal interest in science blogs or online science news.  For the time being, a science student can successfully navigate his or her undergraduate education without an awareness of the scientific blogosphere or the concept of open science.

As much as I would love to share my excitement of all of these fascinating changes, I don’t think students need to know about them.  At the moment, I teach students about the basic differences between review articles, primary research articles and news articles.

In the future I will probably talk about blogs and social networks and how to access primary data sets – I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Thanks for the mention. It was a fascinating debate at #solo09, I ought to embed my notes on the follow-up discussion in the post too, but no time right now…

  2. Hi, Bonnie!

    I teach undergraduate scientific writing at a large research university (Univ of Fl), and have struggled with the same issue, but come to a somewhat different conclusion. Like you, with my beginning students (truly for the first time diving into the primary literature), I do not discuss open access (except as a definition b/c they get a bit confused when they don’t need to be plugged into the library but can still get the material!) or open science. I have begun incorporating other 2.0-esque tools, especially specialized search engines (I love gopubmed) and academic bookmarking sites (don’t have a preference, but many students choose to use them).

    In my advanced classes, I do discuss these issues. We read some of essays on open science and open access, we do some in-class blogging. I feel like I had to incorporate this info because many are planning to publish and have PIs requiring them to consider IF in journal choice. Because of IF, we get into peer review, thus article-level metrics, etc.! I am also concerned that if they are going into academic medicine, then they may have to take a stand on this during their careers. I think anyone heading into Life Sciences or Physics probably needs a heads-up, even if they don’t require special training as undergrads.

    Most of my students (almost all pre-health) are intending on becoming clinical practitioners, and for these students, I’m wondering if NOT teaching them open access is mistake…a couple of months ago, I casually asked my dentist what her real job literacy tasks were and I got a sit-down, 15 minute earful of stuff that had very little in common with my undergraduate syllabi. More surprising was that she had never heard of open access, pubmed central, PLoS, etc…and she is a young, new practitioner. I left this dentist visit with some serious questions about the assumptions I was making when training my students. I totally agree with you that they must first learn the genres of their disciplines (reviews, reports, case studies, etc). And I believe this training is useful in grad/med school, but I am no longer convinced it’s useful throughout their careers. On the other hand, I wonder if open access wouldn’t mean more clinical providers could follow lines of inquiry — if they know that such publications exist. My response has been to submit an IRB to conduct interviews about on-the-job literacy of health providers, and eventually do some reverse engineering for my students (lessons provided via CC, of course!). I just turned it in, so it will be a couple of weeks…

    I also use blogs now in classes — as well as web-based CMEs — to show students how to teach themselves material. Is your library doing anything for Open Access week?

    Thanks for an interesting post! I’ll have to add you to my ever-lengthening RSS reads…:).

    • Mickey –
      Thanks for a really interesting comment. I think that I may have come to a similar conclusion if I had more time with the students I’m teaching. And I think you are right about the usefulness of some of these concepts beyond academia.

      I normally only get one or two hours, as a sort of “guest lecture”, to teach students the basics of scholarly communication and where to find material for their course work. I sometimes need to convince faculty to let me talk about the different types of literature, instead of just skipping to the “how to use a database” part (which I think is becoming less important in the grand scheme of things). As a result I have to strip the content down to it’s bare bones.


      • Studying tools ideally occurs when supportive of principles and learning methods.

  3. It’s sort of ironic that you only get a few hours to teach this stuff — as a composition instructor, I’ve found that I’ve had to learn much about librarianship in order to help students once our ref librarian (who is an excellent teacher along with being a genius with information) has done her 3 hours. And, in return, I do guest lectures for some research classes on how to write b/c the students are getting great search info but little “how to put it all together” info. Really, the two — finding stuff and communicating stuff — need to be brought together. Presenting and practicing separately makes sense, but eventually, the student has to learn how to integrate it all!

  4. One last note: came across this missive from the HHMI regarding med education which it states should actively begin in undergrad: Reading through the competencies was interesting as there is a heavy emphasis placed on literacy, especially “integrative literacy” as well as the ability to communicate across diverse audiences.

  5. Undergraduates can benefit from being aware of the new opportunities that arise from the Science2.0 movement. For example, yesterday I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student who won one of our Open Notebook Science Submeta awards. In this instance the student participated in a laboratory research crowdsourcing opportunity that they can now showcase in ways not possible with traditional forms of scholarship:

    I also think there are tremendous networking opportunities for students who actively participate on social software platforms.

  6. Open access comes up quite naturally any time I am talking with undergrads using journal literature. In fact, I mentioned open access archiving on pubmedcentral just this afternoon while giving tours to our incoming first-year students, as a way of explaining why some of our journals are no longer bound. It is important and very useful, I believe, to educate all students about open access and how it is impacting the local library as well as scholarly communication broadly.

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