“Wow! I never knew the back story of research articles.”

As experienced researchers, we take for granted the format of journal articles.  Our brains anticipate exactly what’s ahead.  Introduction, aims, lit review, methods. . . no surprises. Yet, new researchers experience an article quite differently.  Several years ago, a conversation among first-year students revealed their frustration.

One student confessed, “I just looked for stuff I kind of know already and hoped I could figure out the rest.”

Another chimed in, “Yeah.  And I had no clue what a lot of the stuff even means.”

A third asked, “How do you read all this stuff, Dr. Kerr?”

That question changed the way I teach students to read the literature.  Here’s how we approach it now.

  1. Unpack an article together. We begin by choosing a journal article about a topic that students will enjoy. For example,  College students’ stress and coping is a favorite for a general psychology research methods class.  For students working on our team, we select one of our own publications to familiarize them with the project.  Next, we create a worksheet that students complete in pairs.  If you would like a template, just contact us!
  2. Explain the publication process. Students work in an unfamiliar world of scholarship, tenure, publishing, and peer-review.  Too often, we fail to share how a paper becomes a publication, yet this is an essential process for all researchers.  I find that students really enjoy uncovering “the back story” of submitting a paper, responding to reviews, and getting cited.
  3. Uncover the story behind an article. Students like being detectives.  Here are some discussion starters to use with the “unpacked” article.
    1. Who did this author cite? Why do you think they cited those authors?  Why does citing matter?
    2. How do you find out how often an article is cited? Why is that important to the author?
    3. What is a review? Who are the reviewers for this journal?  How do you think they were chosen?  Let’s take a look at their citations in Google Scholar. How long did it take for the authors to have their paper accepted?  Why?

Sharing the back story of how a manuscript becomes a publication can engage students more deeply in reading the literature.