A brief guide to background researching a science question

As we at Nappy Science Gang move into working on our three main questions, it’s time to start seriously looking at what information is already out there. The world of academic literature can be a daunting place, especially if you’ve never ventured into it before. So, to try and make it a bit easier to navigate, here are a few tips for carrying out some desk-based background research (a ‘literature review’), which we hope will be useful for anyone involved in a citizen science project (not just ours!), or getting to grips with research for the first time.

  • You can use the internet to find out what is already known, BUT be careful of unreliable sources!
  • Google Scholar is a good place to find academic papers. Some will only be accessible if you have a subscription to the journal they are published in, e.g. through a university, but others will be ‘open access’, meaning they are free to all. You should be able to read a short summary (the ‘abstract’) of any paper for free.
  • If you can’t access a paper you really want to read, check who is named as the ‘corresponding author’, and drop them an email. They are often allowed to share their work privately for research purposes.
  • Bear in mind that some academic papers will be easier to read than others – some may well only make sense to those who are specifically trained in a specialist subject. If so, don’t spend lots of time trying to interpret them; glean what you can from the abstract, and move onto something more accessible!
  • Academic papers are reviewed by at least two other researchers working in related fields, so are more reliable than e.g. news reports, web articles and textbooks which are not checked by other experts (but remember that mistakes do still slip through the review process – don’t be afraid to question something if it doesn’t look quite right!)
  • Think critically when reading papers:
    • Is it clear what methods have been used?
    • Are they logical?
    • If populations (groups of people, for example), have enough subjects (people) been used to make sure results are reliable?
    • Can you think of things that could have affected the results but haven’t been mentioned?
    • Who was the work funded by; could this have influenced the outcome?
    • Are the conclusions clear and do they make sense?
    • It is absolutely fine to consider the merits of a paper in this way. (This does not automatically mean you are criticising it. You should, however, be sure that your own biases or feelings about a topic are not clouding your judgement!).
  • News reports can be useful, but always bear in mind that they are generally written by people with general, not specific, background knowledge and the fine detail may have been misinterpreted or not reported.
  • Be wary of Wikipedia – it can be very useful as a way to find links to more robust sources, but ultimately it can be edited by anyone, so should not be used as a primary source of information.
  • Websites from universities (e.g. containing .ac. or .edu in the web address) or other formal organisations tend to be more reliable than personal blogs, for example – although these are useful if they belong to researchers and both can contain references to published information which you can then track down and read for yourself.
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