Helping undergraduate students understand the context of the research articles they find

Students can almost always find something about their research topic. However, they don’t always understand the nature of what they find in a couple of important ways:

  1. They may not understand the nature of the item they find – website, article, news item, review, conference proceedings, blog post etc.
  2. They aren’t yet knowledgeable enough in their field to understand the context in which a particular item stands.

I try to help students with the first item in a lot of the classes I teach.  Prior to any discussion about which databases or citation styles the students will want to use, we go back to the beginning and talk about the difference between various types of articles that they may find:

  • How to tell apart a review article and a primary research article (it isn’t hard, but many of them have never thought about the difference before)
  • What a news article looks like and how it can help lead you to peer reviewed articles
  • How to identify an article abstract when you find it through Google

But up until now, I haven’t spent a lot of time helping students figure out the context of the articles they provide.

Even upper level undergraduates are still novice scientists, and they don’t yet have a sense of what is happening in a particular field.  They aren’t yet sure which researchers are the established authorities in the field.  Students don’t quite have the background to know how a field has progressed over the last 5 or 10 years.

Helping students understand the context of their research topics is largely the job of the department faculty – teaching them the subject knowledge to understand where things fit.

However, there are tools and tips and tricks that librarians can teach these students to help them understand the context for their subject matter.

First, we can introduce them to appropriate reference materials that may provide some background.  Wikipedia isn’t a good source for their research paper, but it may help them understand terms and disciplines they aren’t yet familiar with.  Specialty encyclopedias that often get dusty on the shelves can be brought into the classroom to help students understand how their topic fits in with everything else.

Second, we can help them utilize the built in tools in many of our databases to analyze the search results they find, to see when research on their topic was being done, who was doing it, and how well individual articles were received by other scientists.  Many databases have tools that allow users to retrieve the keywords used by papers from a particular results set – what are the most common terms that arise?  Citation databases like Scopus or Web of Knowledge help students see whether later researchers found a particular paper to be useful.  Users can often examine the publication years from their results set – was this a hot topic 10 years ago?  Is it popular now?

Teaching students about these resources and advanced analysis features can help them bridge the gap from novice to expert scientist, helping them out until they have the knowledge to say “Didn’t someone publish a study contradicting this idea just a few years ago?”