Getting students on the same page with their research skills

Most semesters I teach a few upper level biology seminars.  I’ve talked in the past about the kind of things I teach them, but one particular challenge has been on my mind lately:  getting all of the students on the same page.

Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky.  Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell
Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell

At the moment, information literacy instruction (through me) is not systematically incorporated into the biology curriculum.  The number of biology students has increased drastically in the past few years, so many of the assignments that used to require library research have been scaled back in an attempt to keep grading under control.

As a result, by the time they get to their senior seminar, some students have had experience in finding the primary literature, and some have not.  Some students can easily distinguish between a review article and a primary research article, and some cannot.  Some have experience using databases like Scopus, and some do not.

This creates challenges when designing an instruction session for these students.  Do I start at the very beginning, and never get to some more advanced topics, in order to get everyone up to speed?  Or do I just skim over the basics, hoping that the students will catch enough to enable them to do what they want to do?

My approach to this tends to depend on the desires of the course instructor.  Sometimes they are just looking for the basics.  Other times they are looking for something more.  I often have some of my own ideas, and we tend to meet in the middle.

One approach that I always use for this problem is to simply push the research consultation service that we have, and to encourage students to contact me with big or little questions.

Until we have a more systematic approach to information literacy instruction in this department, we will continue to miss students at the crucial sophomore and junior levels, and we will keep playing catch up in the senior seminars.  We’re working on it.

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A Different Approach to Plagiarism Prevention

First, we don’t call it “Plagiarism Prevention.”  In the approach I developed with a collaborating faculty member from biology, we teach students about “Citation Best Practices.”

Most students never have instruction on what plagiarism is or how to avoid it.  Library instruction about citation often focuses on creating the citation, not how to incorporate in-text citations into your document.

Wikipedian Protester
Wikipedian Protester. From the web comic xkcd.

The faculty member I work with decided that she would be willing to give up a bit of content time to discuss these issues with the students.  One of our major goals was that we didn’t want this instruction to be punitive – we didn’t want to focus on how bad plagiarism is.  Like many other plagiarism prevention strategies, we wanted to be positive and proactive.

We decided to focus on teaching students how to do citations properly – something they had probably not been taught before.

I spent some class time teaching students how to construct a proper citation, and how to tell what type of item they are citing (for example, how to tell the difference between an article or article abstract found through a Google search and a web page).

Then I discuss best practices for doing in-text citations.

First, I remind students that the articles they are using for their papers had authors – real, live people who did the experiments and wrote the papers.  When they cite their sources in their paper, they can acknowledge this in the language they use.

Biologists Smith and Jones (2005) discovered that something really exciting happened.

I provide some examples of how they may use their sources in different ways when writing their paper, and provide some sample language for incorporating the citations:

  • Using a source as background information
  • Using a source as an example
  • Criticizing or analyzing a source
  • Comparing two or more sources

At the end of a brief lecture discussing some of these issues, I provide students with sample paragraphs with citations. (See a sample power point lecture and sample paragraphs.)  Each paragraph uses some citations well, and others poorly.  We ask students to determine what is done well and how each sample could be improved.

In our class discussion about the examples we talk about:

  • How often do you need to insert a citation?
  • Citing sources at the beginning or ending of sentences.
  • Use (or not) of quotations in scientific papers.
  • What is implied if no citation is included?
  • What is considered common knowledge?

Does this cover all aspects of preventing plagiarism?  No.  We don’t touch on a lot of details, and we don’t go into the implications of what happens if you do plagiarize.  We don’t touch on cross-cultural issues of plagiarism, and we don’t go into detail about how to paraphrase or take notes so you don’t accidentally copy.

But by providing this type of instruction, we can help students write better papers, give them some strategies for avoiding accidental plagiarism, and make the connection between the term papers they are writing and the scientific literature.

Adding value to a basic journal article PDF

Publishing journal articles online opens up a wide variety of options: hyperlinking references, including video and audio, archiving data along with the article, etc.  (You can see some ideas about future scientific articles from Elsevier and Cell here).  Most of these options are not normally exercised, and most users still view journal articles as online PDF’s, which they then either save or print.

Sometimes these PDF’s including an often annoying page at the front or back re-stating copyright information or indicating that the material was downloaded through a particular institutions subscription.

Just today, I downloaded an article from an August issue of Science and was pleasantly surprised that this ‘cover page’ actually included some useful information.  In addition to providing the normal article metadata, the links provided may actually be useful, at least to those with a subscription.

SciencePDFinfo
Information included on the "cover page" of a recently downloaded article from Science.

I especially noted the first item in the list of links informing readers that there had been a correction (in this case a relatively minor correction to a figure), and links to articles cited by this paper, including those articles available for free.

I wondered if a similar method was used when a paper was retracted.  A brief search turned up the PDF of a retracted paper published in 2006 and retracted in 2007.  Across the first page of the article in red letters was printed:

Retracted

At the end of the PDF of the 2006 article was the text of the “Editorial Expression of Concern” published 7 months later, and the official retraction of the paper published 9 months after that.

So here, in one PDF document, we have the history of this paper.

This is vital for the undergraduate students I serve.  Without this, a student would have no idea that an article had been retracted for any reason.  This is just one more tool to help novice scientists get into the world of their scientific disciplines.

Information Literacy in Upper Level Undergraduate Biology

One of our library classrooms
One of our library classrooms

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be teaching information literacy sessions in three different senior-level undergraduate Biology seminar classes.  Although the topics differ, the content that I discuss is fairly similar.

Finding (and understanding) a topic

I don’t discuss this in every class, but in a class where students have (mostly) free range to select a topic, I try to give them some resources that will help them narrow the field.

I point them to relevant science news sites and blogs.  ResearchBlogging.org is one of my favorites because it leads the students directly back to the primary literature.  I discuss the merits of browsing a journal’s table of contents, and provide them with links to appropriate journals for their field.  This is all normally done with an in class exercise that gets them to look at some of these resources.  Hopefully they may come away with a topic idea.

Do students appreciate this guidance?  I’m not sure.

Review of primary vs. review articles

Most of the faculty I speak with say that their Senior-level students already know the difference between a review article and a primary research article.  I find that some students can tell them apart, but the majority can’t identify a review article when they see it.  Some students have had information literacy sessions in sophomore and junior level classes where I discuss this in detail (throwing in science news and blogs too) but I don’t see all of our Biology majors, so it is kind of hit-or-miss.

As a result, I normally spend the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute session reviewing the difference between these article types.

I ask students to examine two different articles and for each I ask them:

  • How is the article organized?
  • Whose research and experiments are the authors writing about?  Their own? Or the research of others?

This isn’t rocket science, and at the senior level, these questions are fairly easy to answer for these students.  They just may not have been asked to look at these before.

After we identify the review and primary research articles, we talk about how each of them can be useful.

  • Can you use either for this particular assignment?
  • If you can’t use a review article for this assignment, how can it still be useful to you?

Finding appropriate articles

This section is normally the main reason why the faculty member contacted me in the first place.  I normally focus on a few basic principles:

  • Choosing an appropriate resource for the topic you are searching
  • Selecting appropriate language and terms to use for your search
  • Understanding the nature of citations and how tracking them forward or backward in time can help you find additional information.

Students sometimes have topics already chosen, sometimes they don’t.  The session will involve some hands on time searching an appropriate resource (often Scopus).

And of course, we talk about how to get their hands on the actual full text of an article.

What I don’t spend time on

It may be controversial, but I don’t spend time teaching Boolean logic, unless I have more than one session with the students (and even then I don’t call it by name).

I don’t get into specifics about citing sources unless we have more than one session, although I will recommend the use of Zotero or another citation manager.

I haven’t really talked much about open access, open science or other emerging forces in scientific communication.  I do want to find time to work open access into the conversation in the future – perhaps in the bit about how to get the full text.

Is any of this similar or different than what other librarians talk about in upper level biology classes?