Taming the Literature

The undergraduate years remind me of being an adolescent. It’s an awkward stage in which you try to wade through schoolwork while also trying to answer very philosophical questions such as, “What do I want to do with my life?” If your sights are set on doing science, the question may be modified to, “What do I want to research?” Nevertheless, the theme is the same. Science covers a vast swath of the human intellectual landscape, and you need to choose which direction you want to go.

To do this, undergraduates will often work in the summer as research assistants. This could be in a laboratory, but it could also be in an office (if you’re doing more theoretical work). The idea during undergraduate research (at least, to me) is to explore different areas and find out what you like and what you dislike. From those experiences and the classes you take, you can start forming a plan of what you would like to research.

Once you’ve chosen though, a new challenge arises: you need to actually *learn* the subject. This might seem straightforward since you spent years learning about science that should be somewhat related to your research area, but it’s often more complicated than that. One of the unspoken truths about research is that it’s *much* different than what you learn in class. Of course, it’s not that surprising when you think about it (we don’t tend to do research on subjects which are established), but the result is that you need to learn both the basics (read: the textbook version) of a subject as well as the technical details that bring you up to speed on the current research.

As an undergraduate, I thought this would be fairly easy. I did well in my classes, so how much more difficult could it be to read and absorb the scientific literature? It would be just like a textbook, only more advanced.

How wrong I was.

It turns out that reading the scientific literature is *very* different than reading a textbook or a set of lecture notes. To make this discussion concrete, the research I was doing was in cosmology and gravitation. Think Einstein’s theory of general relativity (and extensions of it). This involves a lot of mathematics, and very little laboratory equipment.

When I first started research, I had no idea about anything regarding relativity. Even though I was studying physics, my background in the subject was non-existent. This meant I needed to study the theory itself, which I did for a few weeks in order to become familiar with the basics. I have to note here that this is difficult in and of itself. We don’t pay universities only for that piece of paper at the end.

Once I got the basics done, my supervisor gave me some papers to review. As soon as I started reading them, it was like I hit a brick wall.

This may not be true for *all* scientific literature, but my experience with physics papers is that authors like to give results with showing little work in between. There is sometimes a few comments strewn into a derivation to explain how one equation magically transforms into another, but these are brief. They certainly aren’t enough for an inexperienced student to understand. Furthermore, as I worked through the various papers, it almost felt like the authors were part of this secret circle of physicists who understood all of these “obvious” steps, while I was on the outside, confused and unable to follow.

In that sense, I learned that the scientific literature isn’t *impenetrable*, but it’s not exactly inviting. It requires you to wade with caution. Moving slowly is preferred versus going at full speed.

The other aspect of the scientific literature that you don’t notice when taking classes is how much convention matters. If you’re anything like myself, you tend to use one textbook for a given class. If you had a class on graph theory, you used one book. If you studied quantum mechanics, you used one book. These subjects have *many* books, but the professor tends to choose one. The unseen benefit that this has is that conventions and notation are consistent. These might vary from textbook to textbook, but if you only use one, you won’t notice the difference.

The scientific literature is a completely different beast. You can find as many different conventions and notations as there are researchers. It’s a mixed bag, and you need to be careful when you go browsing. Authors will often include a small note on the conventions and notation they use for their paper, but that doesn’t really help you, the reader. You still have to do the time-consuming work of translating between various papers so that they have consistent notation. It’s sort of like gifting a book to a friend along with a translating dictionary. It might contain the same information, but you could have just bought them the book in their preferred language.

In my work, I’ve had my share of fun with translation. In fact, one of the papers I worked on recently involved translating from one metric convention to another. This basically involves flipping the positive and negative signs on the results, but it’s not always clear *which* terms will be flipped until you do the calculation. As such, I needed to go through all the calculations again in our notation. Time consuming? You bet!

Therefore, if you’re looking to peruse the scientific literature, keep in mind that things can get *much* messier than your average textbook or lecture notes. There’s a common expression, “You never appreciate what you have until it’s gone.” Here, I think it would be fair to say that you never appreciate your class notes or textbook until you wade into the horrors of conventions and notation in the scientific literature.

That’s the thing with doing research: before you start, you don’t realise how far to the edge of human knowledge you are. While you might have been comfortable with your textbooks and lecture notes that had information organised into chapters with great explanation, research is a much different story.

If I’ve scared any young undergraduates who might be interested in doing research, that wasn’t my intention! Rather, I wanted to share my experience in doing research. Like I mentioned above, the undergraduate years are those formative years where you need to start dipping your toes into research if you think you want to go to graduate school. As such, I think it’s important to have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

Doing research is a great experience. It involves pushing yourself to learn new things, and that process isn’t easy. Difficulties will abound, and you will be frustrated. Just remember that undergraduate research is a worthwhile endeavour. The scientific literature can be intimidating, but you *can* understand it. The crucial part is to remember that it’s not made to teach beginners like yourself. Therefore, if you need an introduction to a subject, my recommendation is *not* to start with the scientific literature. Instead, grab a textbook or a set of lecture notes, and brush up on your basics. Only once you’ve done that should you start reading the literature.

The scientific literature is a jungle. Don’t go into it unprepared. And *definitely* don’t expect everyone to follow the same conventions and notation. Apart from that, start exploring!

Jeremy Cote

Jeremy Cote

I'm a student trying to wrap his head around science and mathematics, but I think I've only succeeded in the other direction. I study theoretical physics, which means my lab consists of a pencil, paper, and a laptop, while I try to explain what other, much more expensive labs observe.

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