Big Ideas in Literacy
How Scientists Read, Write, and Think
There is a prevalent stereotype of the scientist as loner, working monk-like in the lab or at the computer, occasionally crying “Eureka!” upon making a discovery. Indeed, scientists want to make discoveries, love to solve problems, and are obsessed with finding answers; however, it’s generally the questions that set them on fire. Scientists want to generate ever-sharper questions about the natural world.
The key to this perpetual process of inquiry is the scientific community, from the huge body of published science generated by thousands of labs worldwide, to the particular research community that a given scientist associates with, to his or her coworkers and teammates focused on very specific scientific problems. Effective communication is central to progress in science. Of course, individual scientists vary greatly in their social and communication skills, but they would all agree that communication is central—this means working on skills for speaking and listening as well as reading and writing, making a poster and visiting a colleague’s poster, and interacting collegially in all sorts of large and small meetings.
Besides curiosity and inquiry, the most important habit of mind for professional scientists is being skeptical. Scientists want to see the flaw in their reasoning before their colleagues do. They want their data and conclusions to be beyond reproach, and so a lot of science communication involves asking questions of their own work as well as trying to poke holes in the evidence, interpretations, and conclusions of others. The entire scientific community depends on the integrity of the scientific literature; errors and misinterpretations are anathema.
The habit of being highly skeptical and questioning can make scientific discourse seem adversarial. The scientific literature is voluminous, with hundreds of research reports from thousands of labs published every month. Scientists strive for complete clarity in their writing, but also strive to be as brief and concise as possible. This can make expository science writing seem terse, dense, and often dry.
As scientists read, they are constantly asking questions and marking up their reading with notes, questions, underlines and highlights. They consider, How does this relate to what I already know? How does it relate to my own research? How does it change my thinking? It is very rare for a scientist to read a research article in order, from beginning to end.
Examples of how a scientist might read:
- Choose a research paper to read based on title
- Read the abstract and find it interesting and relevant
- Go to the end of the paper to judge how strong the conclusions are
- Flip through the figures (tables, graphs, illustrations, photos) in the paper to get a sense of the data presented
- Identify a key figure, read the legend, and make judgments on power and accuracy of the data
- Return to the abstract and make some notes
- Read the introduction, check a reference at end of paper, and retrieve that related paper
- If experimental methods are unfamiliar or questionable, read in detail and check related references
- They pay special attention and take notes on what the authors should do next, are saying they will do, and likely will actually do