Home » Tips & Tricks » An Undergraduate Guide to Scientific Literature – Part 2

An Undergraduate Guide to Scientific Literature – Part 2


Welcome back everyone! We are still talking about literature searches today, so read on for Part 2!

(Recall that Step 1 is Planning – details here)

Step 2. Collecting

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Once you have a handy plan for the journey ahead, you can now begin collecting equipment necessary for climbing the peaks of knowledge, which arise before you. Most importantly, staying focused on a designated collecting phase allows you to save and sort a wealth of information, without investing any more time than waiting for a sample to spin down in the centrifuge. And how many times when designing an experiment have you remembered a critical fact you read in some paper, which you forgot to download? It should be right here in my browser history, though, right? Wow, did I really spend THAT much time on Facebook…?

The Mountains of Academia

The Mountains of Academia

The easiest place to start collecting papers is the same place where most of life’s questions may be found: the tried-and-true Google search. Here you will find news articles, popular science blogs, and Wikipedia articles to give you a broad overview of how to start your search. Rule of thumb for Wikipedia: if it doesn’t have a figure, it’s probably not worth your time. As you navigate around ads for the top three foods to boost your brain (fish, broccoli, and almonds), focus on learning the language of your field, so your database searches look less like “heart attack,” and more like “myocardial infarction.”

Armed with a bag full of acronyms and buzz-words, you can now take SciCentral by storm! Start your collection with clearly-titled review papers, and then narrow your scope down to alphabet soup Ph.D. thesis publications. Your strategy should be to search online for as many related papers as possible, and then download their respective full-text articles through your university library system. (Most universities should have licenses for major publications and their own search engines, as well. See the University of Pittsburgh Library System as an example.) However, before your download folder is featured on an episode of A&E’s Hoarders, you should make an effort to organize these papers into sub-folders so the next step, filtering, is easier. The sub-questions you identified while planning should serve as a good outline for sorting your downloads and reducing clutter.

Recent Advances in Myrmecology

Recent Advances in Cryptozoology

And unless you are a robot who can remember every detail of every paper you have read (they’re out there, trust me), you will inevitably need to revisit an article or two from your search. A commonly overlooked, but equally important step in collecting, is choosing a file naming convention. Depending on whom you are working with, your convention will be different, but you still need one, regardless. Don’t let your computer desktop turn into a black hole, and make an effort to rename and relocate every file you download. Below are some shared-folder environments and appropriate naming conventions.

Shared with mentor: [Last Name of First Author, Year] OR [Year, Last Name of First Author]

Your research mentor has assumingly been working in his or her domain longer than you, and can most likely remember when these papers came out, especially if any of the publications made their work irrelevant. Your mentor has also most likely met or heard the authors present at conferences, as well, which is why your mentor frequently discusses literature using authors and years. Therefore, you should stick to this convention so you can avoid giving a blank stare when your mentor asks you about Harper, 2008.

Shared with students: [Full Title]

Luckily for us there are simpler and far easier conventions by which to remember papers. When sharing papers on a group project or with other students, the simplest convention is to rename every document as the full title of the article. Referring to your collection of papers by their titles is the easiest way to communicate within your group.

Shared with yourself: [Abbreviated Title] OR [Year, Abbreviated Title]

When working independently, you can take some shortcuts, but that does not mean you can forsake naming conventions entirely. Instead of renaming documents as their full titles, you can resort to abbreviations that make sense in the context of your search. In addition, sorting papers by publication year is a helpful tactic to understanding how your field has developed over the years.

That’s all for now, but check out Part 3 for tips on filtering and interpreting articles!


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