The Synthesis Series

Reading and writing scientific literature is an indispensable part of a scientist’s work. Specifically, scientific literature is arguably the most important communication channel within the scientific community, making available for practitioners the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community.                  Ben-David Kolikant, et.al., 2006, 20



Scientists don’t read textbooks.


Shocking thought, isn’t it? Scientists of all kinds don’t read secondary sources in their field; they read primary sources, also known as original research. What is the difference? Just as with real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. In this case, it’s the publication location. Primary sources are published in “peer reviewed journals”. “Journals” are scholarly publications that come out weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, semi-annually, etc. Essentially, journals are like magazines with articles written by researchers instead of journalists. “Peer review” is the label for a critical scientific practice that claims the best judges of a piece of research are other experts in that field. So, when scientists submit a paper for publication, the journal editor sends the papers out to several expert scientists who evaluate the work’s contribution to the field (does the research answer a question that is important or necessary to ask?) and comprehensibility (is it well-written enough to be understood by other scientific readers?). Thus, a “peer reviewed journal” is one which publishes only writing that reports research which is valuable AND well written (according to the standards of science!).

Two other important differences between primary and secondary sources are authorship and transparency. Authorship is simply who is doing the writing. All primary sources and some secondary sources are written by the experts who actually did the research; that is, they are written by scientists. On the other hand, many secondary sources are written by expert journalists, not the scientists themselves. Transparency is whether or not the “publication record” can be easily found. The publication record includes the author (the writer/s), publisher (organization that makes the text available to the reader), date of publication, and sources the author used for research. Primary sources are highly transparent; all the information a reader needs to check the author, publisher, and sources is easily found. Secondary sources vary a good deal in terms of transparency. Some high quality publications, such as American Scientist, have nearly all the same qualities as primary sources. Other sources, some in print and some on the internet, feature almost none of the publication record. They are low in transparency, and for science, they are not valuable research sources.

For you, the biggest difference between primary and secondary sources is likely how it feels to read them. This is called the “reading experience.” And like all experiences, some are more fun than others. Secondary sources include lots more definitions of technical terms and more explanations of important concepts. This makes secondary sources great ways to learn about a subject that is new to you because the writer knows the audience includes mostly non-experts. It also makes secondary sources a lot more enjoyable to read. And it’s why so many people who love science read quality secondary sources such as Discovery Magazine, American Scientist, Scientific American, and Science News.


The reading experience is quite different for primary sources. In original research, the writer assumes the audience is fellow experts, and usually provides far fewer definitions and explanations. This fact makes reading primary sources more difficult, and new readers to this literature sometimes feel intimidated or frustrated when tackling primary sources for the first time. First, please understand that it takes every practicing scientist years to become an expert researcher, reader, and writer – thus, it will take you time to be comfortable with the primary literature, too. This assignment is intended to aquaint you with the skills needed to manage reading at this level.

The Specifics

For this assignment, you will read three articles representing common methodological types (case study, survey, feasability/quasi-experiment). Not coincidentally, these are also the methodologies you will most likely be choosing for your research project...but that's a couple weeks away yet.  For each article, you will write a 1 page, question-driven summary that will result in a kind of extended note-taking entry. In the literature, this is called "pre-processing" information, kind of like a "cliff note" of a research article.  This is the sort of work you'll be asked to do frequently in upper division and graduate classes.  After the 3 short summaries, you will synthesize all 3 into a 2-page paper, the "synthesis paper".  This paper is essentially a mini-review paper, and will prepare you for writing the lit review in the introduction to your research report (which comes rather later in the course).

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