Should Undergraduates Study the Primary Scientific Literature?

The short answer to the question posed in the title is "yes" but there are many caveats. One of them is that it depends on what level you are teaching. In my opinion, the value of exposing science students to the primary scientific literature (papers) increases as students progress from first year to the year they graduate. Students in their final year of a science program will gain a lot from being exposed correctly to the scientific literature but students in introductory course will hardly benefit at all—and may, in fact, be harmed if it takes time away from learning basic principles and concepts.

It is important to teach critical thinking and it's important to focus education on basic principles and concepts. Most of the basic principles and concepts in a discipline have been developed over several decades. The work that led to those ideas is (usually) in the primary scientific literature but you can't learn the concept by just reading a few key papers. Evolution is a good example but so is our understanding of how cells generate energy from proton gradients, how enzymes work, and how the information in messenger RNA gets translated into proteins.

I find it helpful to remind myself from time to time that the vast majority of the students I teach will never be scientists and many of them aren't really interested in how to do scientific experiments. They will become average citizens in all kinds of careers that have nothing to do with the basic sciences. Our goal is to make them scientifically literate so they will understand why evolution is true, why homeopathy is bunkum, why they should vaccinate their children, and why humans are behind global climate change. I don't think we can achieve that goal by focusing on the primary scientific literature, especially in the early years of undergraduate education.

C.R.E.A.T.E. is a education project funded by the United States National Science Foundation (Grant No. 1021443). It's goal is "transform understanding of science" by using the primary scientific literature as a teaching tool. Here's how they describe their approach ...
The C.R.E.A.T.E. (Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment) method is a new teaching approach that uses intensive analysis of primary literature to demystify and humanize research science for undergraduates. Our goal is to use the real language of science—the journal article—as an inroad to understanding “who does science, how, and why?” At the same time, we wish to help students (1) experience authentic processes of science, in particular discussion/debate about experimental data and their interpretation (including ‘grey areas’), (2) recognize the creativity and open-ended nature of research, and (3) see the diversity of people who undertake research careers (i.e. not just the genius/geeks of popular culture). As a complement to teaching based on textbooks, which tend to oversimplify the research process, C.R.E.A.T.E. teaching focuses on on authentic published work--peer reviewed journal articles—with students reading either series of papers produced sequentially from individual labs or series of papers from different labs focused on a single line of research.

By reading/analyzing a set of papers published in series from a single lab, students experience the evolution of research projects over a period of years. Using newly-developed C.R.E.A.T.E. pedagogical tools, that encourage multiple approaches to the material (concept mapping, sketching, visualization, transformation of data, creative experimental design) students gain deep understanding of the methods (and biological content/principles) that underlie each individual experiment of the paper. In class, we emphasize scientific thinking--focusing on understanding both why and how each part of the study was done, by examining the hypotheses underlying each aspect of the study, and analyzing/discussing the data represented in each figure and table. Students learn to interpret complex data, draw conclusions, debate interpretations, and re-represent data (e.g. represent tabled data in graphic form) to aid understanding. Content knowledge is reviewed as students consider the principles underlying the techniques used, as well as the overall context of the scientific question being addressed (e.g. a module focused on regeneration would likely include review multiple aspects of cell division, cell differentiation, gene expression and stem cells, drawing on information students learned in other classes and helping them to apply it in a real-world research situation). C.R.E.A.T.E. students thus learn a variety of transferable learning skills that can be applied to complex scientific reading they do in the future. Students design their own proposed followup experiments at several points in the semester, and debate each other’s proposed studies in a classroom exercise modeled on activities of bona fide scientific grant panels. Such discussions reveal the research process to be openended, with multiple branch points or possible “next directions to go;” thus much less linear and predictable than many students expect. Late in the process, students generate a short list of questions for paper authors that are sent as an email survey to each author (not simply the PI). Responses from multiple authors provide unique behind-the-scenes insight into “the people behind the papers,” humanizing the research experience and showing researchers to be complex individuals much like the students themselves.
Here's an example based on Pattern formation during regeneration in planaria.

This is an approach that views experiment as the primary focus of science whereas I tend to see science as a much broader way of knowing. The C.R.E.A.T.E. approach to undergraduate education emphasizes the doing of science rather than the understanding of the results and how they fit into a bigger picture. It probably does a good job of looking at "trees" but not so good a job when it comes to seeing the "forest."

I don't know the correct balance between teaching principles, ideas, and concepts and teaching the experimental approach taken by actual research scientists in their day-to-day activities. There's no question that lab courses are extremely important but I'm quite skeptical about bringing the study of experimental techniques into the lecture courses if it take time away from the conceptual understanding of the discipline.

[Hat Tip: Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World: Learn how to use scientific articles in education at the C.R.E.A.T.E. June workshop]
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