Activity: Critiquing a Scientific Paper

By Tigist Amdemichael, Secondary Teacher, Northview Heights SS, TDSB

Scrutiny and criticism are an integral part of the scientific endeavour. The publishing of significant findings by scientists is just one of many steps in the inquiry cycle. However, many students can perceive publication of scientific ideas as the end of the cycle. This misconception is reinforced by classroom lab work routinely culminating in the form of a lab report. Yet, one of the key features of scientific work comes after publication. How the scientific community responds to claims made by scientists is a key feature of the nature of science. The science community examines science articles carefully for errors in procedure and errors in logic. This is an important communication skill for students to learn as it is a critical step in the inquiry process. How do we begin engaging students in the art of critiquing scientific articles?

First, we expose students to primary science literature in the form of the scientific journal. Sadly, many students do not encounter primary science literature in the course of their scientific studies. This is how the Journal of Student Science and Technology comes in handy: a preliminary introduction can be made using an issue of the Journal. This journal provides papers at an appropriate level for secondary students. It is a journal written by students for students. In addition, the Journal of Student Science and Technology publishes a review of each article conducted by an expert in their respective field. Thus, students are provided with an exemplar of what a scientific critique looks like. Eventually, students can progress to longer and more difficult articles found in other scientific journals.

One of the obstacles encountered in using scientific papers with students is their limited prior knowledge of such professional journals. Overcoming this barrier can be achieved using a scaffold approach. Starting with the familiar is a first step. Secondary sources of information - such as popular science magazines - are what most students know well. Comparing and contrasting articles from a scientific journal and a popular science magazine can highlight to students what makes a scientific journal distinct. As well, by way of this exercise, the benefits and drawbacks of each type of publication are discovered. With time, students may come to appreciate the level of depth that is found in primary scientific literature.

Once students are capable of recognizing how a scientific journal is conceptualized, the process of critiquing can begin. Modeling the process of deconstructing a journal for students is key to ensuring they will experience success with this task. Achieving this goal requires an article to be chosen either by the students and/or the teacher for review. Figure 1, provides a template that teachers and students can use when working with an article. Using a consistent format builds confidence and familiarity with the process for students.

Figure 1: Analyzing A Scientific Article

Purpose:     

Does the author express a clear purpose for his/her scientific reasoning?

Statement of Problem:
State in your own words the question being pursued by the author?
How can you further subdivide the original question into smaller questions?

Assumptions:
What assumptions has the author made?
Are these assumptions justifiable? Why or why not?

Procedure:
Are there errors in the procedure outlined by the author?
What changes, if any, would you make to the experimental design?

Data:
To what degree is the data collected accurate, clear, and relevant to the question under study?

Results:
To what degree does the data generated support the claim(s) being made?
What scientific theories and concepts support the reasoning?

Conclusion:
What are the implications and consequences of this research?

Point of View:
What is the author's point of view?
How is the point of view expressed by the author scientific?
From what other points of view could the investigation be done?

After students have internalized the process of critiquing a journal, they can go ahead with smaller cooperative group activities, again using the respective journals. This learning structure encourages discussion and mirrors what scientists would do with scientific claims. Groups can be assigned different articles and through a jig-saw structure a whole issue may be covered.

Alternatively, all groups can work on the same article and see the variety of critiques that are produced. Evaluation can take the form of a written submission of the critique of the article by each individual in the group, ensuring accountability.

Extension activities can include having students repeat the experiment and/or verify and test changes they propose. This can lead to publication of enhanced procedures or alternative results, subsequently furthering scientific dialogue. Teachers may also have students prepare lab reports as scientific journals for enrichment. As students gain more practice, their confidence and understanding of the scientific process grows. Journals can then be used regularly to reinforce scientific content learned in class or extend concepts. Using primary scientific literature is well worth the investment. It is an exciting way to bring current science into the classroom.