Two Cultures Defining Research

I was initially puzzled by the headline “Research-Assignment Handouts Give Students Meager Guidance, Survey Finds,” and the opening sentences didn’t help much:

Most research-assignment handouts given to undergraduates fail to guide the students toward a comprehensive strategy for completing the work, according to two researchers at the University of Washington who are studying how students conduct research and find information.

My initial reaction was “If I could give them a comprehensive strategy for completing the work, it wouldn’t be research.” Then I noticed the last three words, and remembered the source– this is the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is almost exclusively about the concerns of humanities and social science faculty. When they talk about research assignments, they mean library research, not the sort of experimental or computational research projects we put students on in the sciences.

This is a key difference that gets trampled over a lot of the time. When the college revised the general education requirements a few years ago, one of the new courses created had as one of its key goals to teach students the difference between primary and secondary sources. Which, again, left me feeling like it didn’t really fit our program– as far as I’m concerned, the “primary source” in physics is the universe. If you did the experiment yourself, then your data constitute a primary source. Anything you can find in the library is necessarily a secondary source, whether it’s the original research paper, a review article summarizing the findings in some field, or a textbook writing about it years later.

In many cases, students are much better off reading newer textbook descriptions of key results than going all the way back to the “primary source” in the literature. Lots of important results in science were initially presented in a form much different than the fuller modern understanding. Going back to the original research articles often requires deciphering cumbersome and outdated notation, when the same ideas are presented much more clearly in newer textbooks.

That’s not really what they’re looking for in the course in question, though– they don’t want it to be a lab course. But then it doesn’t feel like a “research methods” class at all– while we do occasional literature searches, for the most part that’s accomplished by tracing back direct citations from recent articles. When I think about teaching students “research methods,” I think of things like teaching basic electronics, learning to work an oscilloscope, basic laser safety and operation, and so on. The library is a tiny, tiny part of what I do when I do research, and the vast majority of the literature searching I do these days can be done from my office computer.

I keep toying with the idea of doing one of the courses that people on the other side of campus describe as teaching “research methods,” so I’ll need to get a better handle on what they’re looking for, and how I could incorporate those elements. It’s hard to shake a couple of decades of thinking about research like a scientist, though.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    July 29, 2010

    Going back to the original research articles often requires deciphering cumbersome and outdated notation, when the same ideas are presented much more clearly in newer textbooks.

    Not to mention that the original article might be in some other language, most often German, Russian, or French (this was the reason for the language requirements some of your older colleagues may remember). I can (and have) read articles in German with a little vocabulary help from my colleagues who are native German speakers, but I would have no chance with the other two. Textbook authors will have dealt with translation issues, so that you can read the key points in English (or whatever your native language is–one time when I consulted a native Japanese speaking colleague on some question outside my expertise, he pulled out a book which I identified from the mathematical typography as the Japanese translation of one of the standard textbooks in my field).

  2. #2 David Owen-Cruise
    July 29, 2010

    Speaking as a social scientist, I would expect a research methods class for undergrads to cover hitting the library databases to know what’s been done, experimental design, and applied statistics.

  3. #3 miller
    July 29, 2010

    Your comment about primary sources in science reminded me of my experiences arguing with LaRouche supporters. They’re a cult of personality around crackpot economist Lyndon LaRouche. They have really cranky beliefs about physics; for example they believe that Newton stole his laws from Kepler. Anyways, I found that LaRouche supporters often go back to the original papers (often attacking scientists who wrote them). Anything more modern is part of the establishment. It’s a pretty silly way to learn physics.

  4. #4 perceval
    July 29, 2010

    If you substitute “universe” for original documents (history), the authors’ actual work(s) (literature), key theoretical works (sociology / politics / literary theory) etc, physics isn’t that different from the humanities.

    Going back to the original sources for theories in the humanities is important because concepts aren’t defined mathematically, but in words that can and will be misunderstood. You’d be surprised at the chain of miscitations and misunderstandings that can lead to an innocent little concept becoming all diffuse, unwieldy, and unuseable.

  5. #5 Brian
    July 29, 2010

    Shouldn’t a research methods course in Physics cover methods used in Physics? That’s what we do in chemistry – we cover “how to find article X” in the literature, and then move on to an introduction to the department’s instrumentation. It isn’t at all like research methods courses in Sociology or Psychology in many ways. One of the most important is that we view it as an introductory course for freshmen who are interested in doing reserach. We go into much greater detail in upper division specialty courses.

  6. #6 Dr. Free-Ride
    July 29, 2010

    Ping!

  7. #7 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    July 29, 2010

    Lots of important results in science were initially presented in a form much different than the fuller modern understanding. Going back to the original research articles often requires deciphering cumbersome and outdated notation, when the same ideas are presented much more clearly in newer textbooks.

    This is very true. A lot of older texts can be almost unreadable to a modern audience.

    However, the converse of this statement also holds. Very often the only way to get a really clear idea of a topic is to go all the way back to the original papers. The best example of this is probably something like Legendre Polynomials. Nowadays, they are introduced using the Frobenius method (which is unfit for human consumption, but I digress). It’s fairly heinous. Going back to the original problem of expanding 1/|x| makes the whole topic a lot clearer.

    In fact a far better example is seen with Bessel’s functions. Did you know they were originally devised by Bessel in an effort to solve Kepler’s equation in the context of planetary mechanics. This original derivation is also far more digestible than the modern series solution.

  8. #8 Kevin Reid
    July 30, 2010

    I see a t-shirt:

    “The universe is my primary source”

  9. #9 Otto
    July 30, 2010

    Going back to the original research articles often requires deciphering cumbersome and outdated notation, when the same ideas are presented much more clearly in newer textbooks.

    This strikes me as dancing around the pedagogical issue, and I don’t mean the notation. If one is talking about undergraduate physics education, I think one would be hard pressed to argue that the grab-bag of texts typically employed is some sort of model of clarity; heaven help a sophomore if the lab component of the curriculum is headed by some sort of suzerain.

    The question would seem to be knowing the right tool for the job, no?

  10. #10 DuWayne
    July 30, 2010

    Two quick points before I hit the road for Knoxville, TN.

    First, I am absolutely appalled that the problem expressed in the article that inspired this post is actually a bloody problem. I have been repeatedly disturbed by just how woefully unprepared kids are for college, in terms of actually knowing how to write a basic research paper. This is stuff that should be learned in high school and, when I was in high school, actually was.

    Irritates the hell out of me.

    The reason this is so important in the social sciences, is because that is how we learn what can be improved. One of the biggest reasons that I decided to go into neuropsychology and to focus on addiction, is that while there is some promising research happening, there is also still a prevailing attitude that addiction is addiction. Suffice to say that not only is that not true, there are a lot of actual substance abusers who could tell you that. But I know that, because I spent a lot of time (yes, I was that sort of geek when I was merely a high school dropout, rather than a dropout who is in college) reading the literature on substance abuse and addiction.

    This is true of a lot of mental disorders. As little as ten years ago, it was commonly assumed that bipolar disorder was pretty much a singular disorder. It is because people are constantly reviewing the literature and discovering flaws, anomalies and/or points of information that researchers didn’t think were relevant at the time, that we keep learning and evolving.

    There is also a general assumption being made, that there is always room for improvement on our fundamental assumptions. Or the desire to drive those fundamental assumptions to their very limits and beyond. Finally, if we happen to have a very clever idea, we need to justify it or it’s investigation, based on existing literature. We need to be able to show flaws, anomalies and/or points of information that previous research never accounted for.

    And there is the point that we don’t have lots of nifty lasers to work with (though I for one, think it would be bloody awesome if we did). What we do have is generally fairly simple and when it isn’t, we’re generally dealing with stuff that requires someone with biomed lab training (for animal models) or a physician (generally a neurologist). We are studying behavior, for the most part. That comes with a whole different set of complications – complications that (unfortunately) don’t involve lasers, optics, microparticles, macroparticles or really sensitive equipment for seeing what happens to them. We do sometimes use really sensitive equipment for looking at brains, but generally that part is done by people who are qualified to either dissect animal brains, or put people through particular types of imaging equipment.

    The people who can do those things are sometimes psychologists, but usually not so much. And outside psychology, the social sciences are investigating behavior in ways that completely preclude looking at the brain or really looking at much that can be dealt with in the lab. When you are trying to study, for example, why a given demographic tends to engage in behavior Y, when environmental condition W happens, you are engaging in scientific exploration that necessarily works with very different parameters than what you are used to as a physicist.

    Those differences do not make the social sciences any less science, they just mean that the methods used are going to be different.

  11. #11 Margaret Henderson
    July 30, 2010

    You are right that are differences in what consitutes primary research materials, but then there are also different publishing patterns in different subject areas.

    I do have one bone to pick though:

    “The library is a tiny, tiny part of what I do when I do research, and the vast majority of the literature searching I do these days can be done from my office computer.”

    Just a reminder that all those databases and journals you search from your office are provided by the library at your institution. And while physics has been at the forefront of open access publishing, in the biomedical sciences where I teach literature and sequence searching, most literature is not free (despite the new NIH policies).

    When I teach my lectures in a graduate science writing course, I have to consider the interdisciplincary nature of the biomedical sciences and show many databases, including citation databases. Original peer-reviewed research articles are the primary literature in the areas I work with, review articles and text books synthesize the research.

  12. #12 Qilin Tracker
    August 1, 2010

    It’s true that arts students do their research primarily in the library, but that’s because many of the primary as well as the secondary sources are found there. In history, primary sources are ‘the data’, the only traces we have left of the people or events we are studying (like fossils in paleontology). So yes, it’s a bit different from physics, where the object of study, the universe, is still around.

    Access to written primary sources, especially for undergraduates is often through published collections or as inclusions within secondary sources e.g. in an appendix. Realistically, undergraduate access to primary sources like objects and images is mostly through reproduction as well. Being able to tell which types of questions can only be answered by access to the ‘real primary source’ and which ones can be answered using these ‘copies’ is one of the many things humanities students have to learn. Secondary sources are quite different from primary sources, and they include anything anyone has written about the primary sources, ever, just as you say for physics.

    The big rub for beginning students is that primary sources and secondary sources for the arts are found in the same place, look superficially the same, and are sometimes all contained between the covers of a single book. The first thing you have to do with undergraduates is make sure they can tell the difference. Then you have to make sure they know what to do with a primary source once they’ve got it. That’s just for starters of course… yes, it’s a completely different culture, although I would prefer to say that it’s a completely different set of methodologies for a completely different field of inquiry.

  13. #13 Bonnie
    August 2, 2010

    This is an interesting discussion. I spend a lot of my time as a science librarian trying to teach undergraduates the difference between the different types of scientific literature – original research papers, review articles, technical reports, etc.

    I do this at the request of science faculty, most of whom don’t want their students using books and textbooks in the research papers and lab reports they assign – they want the original research papers – even when a book might actually be the best source of information on a particular problem.

    I think the idea of just two cultures may be an over simplification of some very real disciplinary differences, even within the sciences.

  14. #14 DuWayne
    August 2, 2010

    When I teach my lectures in a graduate science writing course, I have to consider the interdisciplincary nature of the biomedical sciences and show many databases, including citation databases.

    See, now this seems absolutely bizarre to me. While I can understand the usefulness of a science writing course and can even accept the need for a grad level science writing course, it just seems insane to me that someone going into any science wouldn’t be painfully familiar with databases and at least the basics of citation formats.

  15. #15 Margaret Henderson
    August 2, 2010

    @DuWayne
    As bizarre as it might seem, I have taught many people in grad school and the health sciences that have no idea how to use a database or cite references, even a few faculty members.

  16. #16 Nat
    August 3, 2010

    Some thoughts on the value of going back to early literature in biology are here.

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