Introduction to Scientific Journals

Avery Cook Shinneman, University of Washington at Bothell
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In this activity, students are introduced to locating and reading peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. It helps ease students into the process of locating, reading, and using journal publications. This activity can be done entirely in class or a combination of in-class with homework assigned. It is a helpful way to lead students toward searching for and using the peer-reviewed literature in their own research.

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Introductory geology and environmental science classes with a focus on process of science, scientific thinking, evidence-based writing and research.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Scientific method, the concept of peer-review and scientific publication, hypothesis development and testing, familiarity with library research.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a mid-point activity in a course sequence that involves lab/activities focused on hypothesis development and testing, moves to this activity, and continues with a focused research project that requires students to use scientific literature in their research. This assignment follows other lecture and lab assignments that introduce/review making a hypothesis, accepting/rejecting a hypothesis, and using evidence to support an argument. We review the basic flow of the scientific method, and do a mini-lab that involves writing a hypothesis and collecting data in an organized way that will support or reject the hypothesis.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

· Become familiar with the structure of a scientific paper and describe what kind of information is provided in each section (abstract, introduction, methods, results, conclusion)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

· Identify hypotheses in scientific writing.

· Evaluate evidence in support of a claim in scientific and journalistic writing.

Other skills goals for this activity

· Identify appropriate search terms and effectively search library databases to find relevant peer-reviewed scientific literature.

· Gain experience in looking at peer-reviewed research to begin increasing familiarity with the structure and tone of peer-reviewed literature.

Description and Teaching Materials

Briefly introduce that we will be discussing the process that scientists go through to formulate a hypothesis, test it, and share their information with their peers through scientific publication.

I begin by showing this short video: [caution: the observer here uses profanity; the video can be played on mute and talked over for the same effect]. The video shows the projectile nature and copious amount of fecal matter produced in a penguin colony. I use this to focus on how any observation, no matter how trivial, can be formed into a testable question. In this case, the researchers essentially observed this phenomenon and asked "how do they do that?"

I then get students into groups of 2-4 and give each group a copy of the paper "Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation", published in the journal Polar Biology in 2003. Working together, they need to identify and underline the hypothesis of the paper, the evidence used to accept or reject the hypothesis, and state whether it was accepted or rejected. I walk around and help each group with this for 10-15 minutes.

After each group has had a chance to read and discuss this, as a class we talk about the structure of a scientific paper. I list on a white board "Abstract", "Introduction", "Methods", "Results", "Conclusions" and we work as a class to describe what information should appear in each section.

As a follow up, I assign each student an article written up in Science News Daily: These articles are succinct summaries of recently published peer-reviewed journal articles. I choose articles related to current or upcoming topics in class. The students are then given an assignment for the next class to: (1) use the reference material from the Science News Daily article to locate the actual publication using library databases. (2) Using both the scientific publication and the journalistic summary article, identify the hypothesis of the research, the evidence used to accept or reject the hypothesis and whether it was accepted or rejected.

Teaching Notes and Tips

While the subject matter of the Polar Biology article doesn't fit content-wise with all classes, I find that it is very easy to read and understand, and a little bit funny, so it's a nice ice breaker for looking at scientific papers and seems to work to "ease" students in to the kind of reading it involves.

I have also done this activity by first giving the students the more complicated scientific article and asking them briefly to work on finding the hypothesis, etc. which they are totally overwhelmed by, and then we step back and go through the exercise with the penguin paper and they are much more comfortable trying to tackle the more complex paper.

This activity is also a good jumping-off point for a discussion of basic vs. applied science as many students wonder that anyone bothered to do this research!

Tip: the Science Daily page now has direct links to the journal articles, which may allow students to directly to the text if they are logged in to the library system. This may mean you want to add details to the assignment that require a description of how they got to the article.


  • Working with individual groups as they read the Polar Biology article to assess their comprehension.
  • Classroom discussion and consensus building on the questions regarding the Polar Biology article.
  • Homework points assigned to individual students for locating the assigned scientific article and correctly answering the assigned questions.
  • Optional to have students write a description of how they located the scientific article; recently some of the Science News Daily articles have active links, so it may be necessary to constrain that students must use the library to find the article and narrate how they did it.

References and Resources


article: Meyer-Rochow VB and Gal J (2003) Pressures produced when penguins poo - calculations on avian defaecation. Polar Biology 27: 56-58.