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Welcome to this podcast where you’ll learn how to research anything in life science. You know what? Research is hard, research is an art in its own right. I mark student science projects, and some of them reference their sources. All of them should, of course, but only some of them do, and they do so in quite an inconsistent manner. Some of them only reference Wikipedia, some of them reference website URLs, and it’s clear that we barely even know where to start with creating references, looking things up, and just generally managing knowledge.

Timestamps

It’s clear we barely know where to start with managing knowledge… 0:53

What should be cited and what doesn’t need to be cited… 2:38

Despite its humongous proportions, that sea is still not the sum of all information that exists in the world… 4:41

If you wanted to find the latest studies on smoking you can right this second… 5:52
PubMed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed

These steps are vulnerable to human error and can be hard to verify… 8:20

Others use pirated repositories such as Scihub… 9:50
Nature https://www.nature.com/
Science https://www.sciencemag.org/
Scihub https://wadauk.github.io/scihub_ck/index.html
UCL Events Calendar

What u look up today will change tomorrow… 11:36
Evernote https://evernote.com/
Zotero https://www.zotero.org/

 

Script

 

Intro

♪ tune
Intro Hi guys, how’s it going?
I lived 24 years as a woman. But you wouldn’t know it from this suave ass voice. Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune

 

Creating Knowledge

Welcome to this podcast where you’ll learn how to research anything in life science. You know what? Research is hard, research is an art in its own right. I mark student science projects, and some of them reference their sources. All of them should, of course, but only some of them do, and they do so in quite an inconsistent manner. Some of them only reference Wikipedia, some of them reference website URLs, and it’s clear that we barely even know where to start with creating references, looking things up, and just generally managing knowledge.

Let’s walk through it shall we? Now, I think research is an esoteric process, that happens from a very high level, such as googling something or asking Siri, to a very low level, such as reading the reference list at the end of a book, or even personally requesting science papers from their authors. In life science, there is some structure involved, depending on multiple factors. You’ll learn a particular way of doing it, perhaps from your mentor, supervisor or teacher, which may be based on convention or even their personal preference!

If you carry out experiments and want to publish your findings in journals, each of them will give different instructions as to how you’re supposed to format your text, or your tables and figures. Some papers in the highest rated science journals have tiny figures and graphs stacked together, because they’re only allowed to spare space for a few figures, and if your research needs to produce lots of them to prove something, as a scientist, you try to get around it by cramming them all in the same space! Needless to say, it can be very difficult to decipher. Have you ever wondered which bits of information you’re supposed to cite or include references for? Stay tuned because that’s exactly what I’m going to cover in just a second. ♪ tune

 

Attributing Knowledge

The fundamental principle of academic writing is that your work must be clearly differentiated from other people’s work. If you need to mention their work, you would include a citation, or a reference at the end of the content, to allow readers to know that someone else has done that work, as well as be able to look it up further if necessary. Before we move on, let’s just explain that a citation is an in-text tag that briefly connects the sentence or word to its source, for example the author name and year in brackets; while a reference is a tightly-structured, full statement on that source, usually included together with all the rest, at the end of a paper. References can include author name, year, title, chapter, page, unique identified, and URL link, as applicable. More on how to automatically generate references from your browser, later.

An area of confusion I see a lot is what should be cited, and what doesn’t need to be cited. Sometimes, students write about every last detail of an experimental protocol that is very well-established; other times, they make crazy bold statements that must definitely be backed up, but aren’t.

The key is to gauge the context of that specific piece of knowledge in your field. If you’re writing about mitosis at a research level, you won’t need to explain to any scientist that mitosis is cell division, and include any reference to its discovery. However, if you’re covering a new breakthrough in human bone cell culturing, where a new ingredient has significantly improved cell proliferation, then that sounds like something that you would need to include a reference for. Think of the field, and of your audience. The next burning question is really: can anything be found out through the internet? Find out next ♪ tune

 

Hidden or Nonexistent Knowledge

I’ve already mentioned googling, and the sea of knowledge that appears to be available through the internet, and it is so important to keep in mind that, despite its humongous proportions, that sea is still, not the sum of all information that exists in the world. Beside the content that sits hidden behind paywalls, or login walls, and all the information that actually doesn’t even exist yet, there’s things that no one has thought of, or knowledge yet to be published. Some science papers take years to come to light. Where scientists’ work is sponsored by companies, agreements are made to delay the publication of their new technology or new data, so that the commercial enterprise has a head start on their competition. So there are so many reasons why knowledge that might exists somewhere, in someone’s brain, scribbled on a note somewhere in a lab, wouldn’t necessarily be on the internet. You can’t assume that everything will be there, as many things simply won’t. I’m going to tell you which website is pretty much the bible of life science information, in just a second ♪ tune

 

Your Relationship with the Oracle

In life science, you don’t just google things, not at a research level for sure. The knowledge repository that scientists go to is pubmed p-u-b-m-e-d, the collection of published papers and other types of data, such as gene sequences, proteins, species, and everything in between. Browsing the website you can see the main search bar at the top, and the little dropdown menu next to it, where all the different sub databases are shown. If you get quite deep in it, the navigation and layout of the web pages can be a little clunky. It’s not the most modern website ever, but it is where all the life science juicy data lives. It takes some practice to learn how to find what you’re looking for, but the information is truly vast. If you wanted to look at the human genome, you can, right this second. If you wanted to find the latest studies on the effect of smoking, you can, right this second. If you wanted to compare the human insulin protein with that of a cow, you can do that too.

Clearly, the bleeding edge research level is the deepest there is, and for a lot of areas, it would be impossible to already have the basic knowledge required to wrap your head around it. So by all means, you should go a level, or more, higher, if you’re tackling brand new stuff you don’t really know anything about.

Spending time assessing your level of information is as crucial as trying to find more of it. For a very high level coverage, you would read the news, you might read about new science through the BBC, The Telegraph, or some random blog. The trouble here, is that some of these very high level sources often do not include the link to the primary source, which is frustrating as you need to know that their coverage is truthful. For a lot of scientific content, sadly this isn’t the case, and primary research constantly gets exaggerated and misrepresented in the media. Linking the source is especially critical when the claims made in the article are really bold.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking up something quite specific, for writing a literature review, or even for experiments, you’d reach out for the more traditional academic tree of knowledge, which is weaved by textbooks, and papers, and all the reference lists they include, which connect one publication to the next, through time. What if someone makes a mistake and ruins the tree of knowledge, or rather, the tree of life science? Find out next ♪ tune

 

Reading and Scepticism

There are different kinds of papers published to reflect knowledge, some of these sources are called primary, while others are secondary. The primary ones are the front line, experimental work that generates bits of new knowledge. The secondary ones are overviews of many primary sources, that are put together to make broader sense of that particular field. A literature review does that, by bringing together the most recent and important research, and weighing in on their significance as analysed collectively.

You can’t just believe things, so any new statement or protocol must point to its origin. A primary source must include enough details that someone else could try to replicate the results, as reliability is a key mandate of the scientific method. The way research is presented, the way data is produced, managed and analysed, must inspire integrity. These steps are vulnerable to human error, and can be difficult to truly verify. This is why ethical integrity and peer review are critical to ensuring the robustness of new findings and knowledge. The last thing you want is for an error to pollute decades of subsequent research, and even medical practice, which has happened before. Now let’s get to the good, juicy part. Where can you find the stuff that doesn’t live on the internet? Where is all that cool insider info? I’ll try to let you in on it, in just a second. ♪ tune

 

Gatekeeping

If you visit a journal website like Nature or Science, the top ranked science journals in the world, or any other one, because there are hundreds, thousands of different broader or more niche science journals, with varying rankings, which some people value, and others mock, on the journal websites you may get slammed with a paywall, for something along the lines of £50 for a single paper. As a student, you might be lucky to have access to the content via your institutional email credentials, and that depends on how loaded your library is to pay the fees for each imaginable journal. Some people obtain the content by asking the author themselves, although this doesn’t always work very well. Once I emailed an author only to get an automated response informing me that they had been dead for a few years. Others use pirated repositories such as sci-hub, s-c-i-h-u-b, a controversial portal that pulls all the content from the publishers’ databases to make it accessible to the public.

Not all research is done behind a computer, since the internet doesn’t contain all knowledge available. Physically attending a conference a great way to talk to a scientist themselves, and find out the latest information, yet to be published. University lectures are often open, but conferences can have attendance fees attached to them, although they are massively discounted for academics and students. It takes some networking to figure out how and where these events take place, but even UCL’s famous yearly Prize Lecture attended by Nobel Prize winners is open doors. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get the perspective of a leader of a field. I have two final tips for making the most out of any research you have to carry out, academically and otherwise. Stay tuned! ♪ tune

 

Off You Go

My first tip is that research can be a long term activity. You don’t just look stuff up for an hour and are done with it. It can be a drawn-out, rather creative process where what you look up one moment will change tomorrow. Your initial perspective, key words and expectations will return a set of results, and if those things change later on, you’ll bump into things that you would have never found, or realised, or appreciated fully the first time round.

The second tip is that if you’re going to write a paper and cite certain things or have a collection of references at the end, you can’t just find them retroactively, you also can’t write them manually, and here is where the final tip comes in, you have to keep track of sources as you go along. There’s a lot of tools for this, a lot of apps, Evernote is very popular, Zotero is one of my favourites, and there are others. With Zotero, you can simply click a browser plugin button to automatically save any resource on a web page, like a paper reference, or a book reference from an amazon page. These get curated into custom folders that you can later use to generate bibliographies and paste them to your clipboard. It literally takes a few seconds and you’re done! No manual work, no time wasted.

 

Outro

Thanks for listening, and remember… Life is at least as inevitable as death. Byeeee ♪ tune