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BHS 252 - Modeling Systems of Life

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Types of Sources

Primary Sources, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

What’s the difference?

A Primary Source is original research, the first place a researcher publishes his or her findings.

        Examples: journal articles, conference presentations, technical reports, field data.

  • Contain a detailed description of the research methodology and results. 
  • References to research which a publication is based on or attempting to refute. 

A Secondary Source discusses, explains, describes, analyzes, or summarizes primary sources.

         Examples :books and review articles. 

  • Provide citations (references) to the primary literature.
  • May indicate the key researchers and research institutions in the field

A Tertiary Source  describes or analyzes a group of secondary sources.

         Examples: annotated bibliographies, encyclopedias and dictionaries.

  • Great source of background information on a topic.


Assessing Journals

Journal metrics such as Journal Citation Reports, Google Journal Metrics or Acceptance Rates can help you determine how a journal measures up against other journals in the field and also how heavily you should weigh certain articles published in that journal. Journals with a higher impact factor are typically thought of more highly.  There are also alternative journal metrics.


Google Journal Metrics

Google Scholar collects and distributes journal level metrics as a way to rank and compare journals. To access these metrics click on the link on the lines to the left of the words Google Scholar to see the page titled Metrics. 


Alternative Journal Metrics

Strategies for Reading & Understanding Scientific Articles

Reading scientific articles is a completely different process than reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper and is a skill that every scientist has had to learn.  Below are Step-by-Step Instructions for Reading a Primary Research Article that were adapted from Dr. Jennifer Raff's blog. You may also download the full pdf version.  



1. Begin by reading the Introduction, not the Abstract.

The abstract is a dense paragraph at the beginning of the article that generally provides a summary of the entire paper.  The reason we read this last is to not become biased by the author's interpretation of the results.  


2.  Identify the BIG QUESTION

Instead of asking "What is this paper about?" we ask "What problem is this entire field trying to solve?"  


3. Summarize the background in five sentences.

Identify, concisely, what work has been done before and what further work needs to be done?


4. Identify the SPECIFIC QUESTION?

What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research?


5. Identify the approach.

What are the authors going to do to answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION?


6. Read the Methods section. 

Draw diagrams for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did.  You need enough understanding to be able to replicate the experiment.  


7. Read the Results section.

Write a paragraph summarizing the results for each experiment, figure, and table.  Don't yet try to decide what the results mean, just what the results are.  Most papers will summarize the results in their figures and tables.  Also don't forget about Supplementary Online Information to find some of the results.  


8. Do the results answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION?  What you think they mean?

Starting forming your own ideas about this before you read the author's interpretations. 


9. Read the conclusion/discussion/interpretation section.

What do the authors think the results mean?  Do you agree?  Are there alternative ways of interpreting the data?  Do you agree with their next steps?


10. Now read the Abstract

Does it match with what the author said in this paper?  Does it match your interpretation?


11. What are other researchers saying about this paper?

Who is citing this paper?  Are they in support or criticism of this work?  


12. (Optional) Go through the Literature Cited section and see what other papers the author cited

This will help you identify important papers in the field and find sources of useful ideas or techniques.