Researching a Scientific Topic

A friend of mine recently asked me what types of resources I used to read up on and explore areas of science that I might be studying or planing to delve into with more focus. I remember how she feels. It can be quite daunting to stare at the screen and wonder, “where do I even start?” I hope that this will be a useful starting place for folks that want an idea of how to attack the staggering resources that the internet age has made available. This post is mostly aimed at folks with a mind towards academic literature searching with the purpose of becoming more of an expert on a scientific niche – an undergrad researching a writing assignment or preparing to interview with a lab they want to join for example. However, the process is not limited to this.

First of all, there are multiple tiers when it comes to researching a topic. Which tier you end on depends on why you want to know and how deeply you want to know it.

Tier 1: what’s out there?

The first tier is the broadest. The purpose is simply to begin to get a feel for what resources exist out there on the topic and less on actually picking up in-depth information. As a very first step, it probably won’t surprise you that google is my first stop. I generally scan the little blurbs that google provides with each result to get a brief feel for the landscape. Also, for basic specific information (like “wait… what’s a ribosome do again?”), Wikipedia is pretty damn awesome. For the MOST part when it comes to science/math stuff the wiki gets it pretty close most of the time. Just always keep that little nagging thought in the back of your head that says, ‘this is probably mostly true but just maybe I should keep an eye out for something that says different’. Truthfully, thats a good thought to keep around period, come to thin

k of it. This level of research is fine for getting a cursory working understanding of a topic but suffers from the fact that the internet is a VERY democratic arena and ANYone can write what they want. Also, information on this level tends to be separated from its originating source by many degrees of separation. Journalists and others who write about science in the public forum may not fully understand the topic and may tweak it just a bit to make for a better story.

Tier 2: what do the experts say?

For a better understanding of a topic at the level of the field of professionals that actually study the phenomenon (like to get a feel for a topic before interviewing at a lab you want to work in that studies it), you will do well to START with invited review articles from noted journals. Go to pubmed and type in “RNA editing”. There are close to 3000 papers that come back. Its ridiculous to try to read all those simply to get an understanding of where the field is for this topic in general. However, if you look over to the right, you will see a link that says ‘Review’ and has a MUCH smaller number (click on it). But this is still pretty large. Further cull the herd by focusing on the latest articles (contain most up-to-date info) and those from the big journals. ‘Nature reviews’ is usually pretty bloody good and readable by most people with a reasonably firm grasp of Biology. They also usually define important terms, but for those they don’t… wiki them. This level of information is still considered a “secondary” source since it is a group of experts’ assessment of many primary research papers; however, these reviews do go through a peer-review process so it can be considered reasonably vetted.

Reviews offer a digested synthesis of current research by experts in the field.

Tier 3: do the original experiments agree with the authors’ conclusions?

Now once you have chosen a phenomenon that you want to work on and have read a couple recent reviews on the topic, its time to actually look into the primary literature (the originating research articles) that in many cases was used as the foundations for the reviews you read. Go read the actual papers cited by the reviews that focus on the area of the topic you plan to study. This will familiarize yourself with the actual experiments used to come to the conclusions of the authors and allow you to evaluate whether you agree that the conclusions are well supported. It will also expose you to all the little results that didn’t quite make it into those fancy reviews. These may spark an idea in your head or raise a question for you that provides an avenue for your own research which would be the fourth tier: your own original experiments.

This is the basic hierarchy of researching a scientific topic that I use. Again, how far down you go will depend on why you want to know the topic. The process will be much easier for you if you happen to have access to a University’s resources. Many of the papers on pubmed are available for free online to the public but some like Nature, Science, and many of the ‘best’ journals are not. Here at UCI, our library has deals with most of the journal publishing companies that allow us to have access to them while accessing the internet from anywhere on campus. If you don’t attend a University but live within a reasonable drive of one, the libraries are often open to the public and you can sit down at one of their computer stations to gain access to most of the journals you will need.

Good luck!


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