Five ways librarians teach science literacy
April 27, 2020
By Kristina Hopkins
A student lens on the invaluable role librarians play
It wasn’t until Kristina Hopkins was in her second year of graduate school at Columbia University in the US that she discovered the databases and tools available to support researchers in their work. She recalls: “My dissertation advisor asked me to build a literature review from scratch, which inevitably took months. I was never introduced to tools like Scopus or Mendeley, which help you locate literature within seconds.”Kristina’s student experiences, along with the knowledge she has gleaned in her current customer consultant role at Elsevier, have convinced her of the important role librarians can play in helping students become literate in science.” What does she mean by that term? Kristina defines it as “understanding scientific concepts and processes in a way that informs your ability to make decisions, participate in civic and cultural affairs, and contribute to economic productivity.”
She adds: “Science literacy is important for many reasons; for example, it allows us to critique research, separating theories from evidence-based claims. And right now, that is crucial – as a consumer of COVID-19 news, you need to discern which science is reliable, i.e. has been properly peer-reviewed, and which needs more evidence to substantiate.”
Here are the five key steps she believes librarians can take to help students learn these vital skills.
Ensure students are informed about library services
Kristina says: “The big thing I wish I had known as a student is that libraries are not just for studying or borrowing monographs, but can actually support students’ growth in learning and research. For example, I was unaware of library liaisons and their subject area expertise.”
Recommend strategies for discovering content
According to Kristina, not all faculty have the time to devote to teaching this primary research skill. “Librarians can guide students to find quality sources using different discovery tools, and the pros and cons of each. They can also let students know about accessing subscription content off-campus. In some cases, students are unnecessarily paying hundreds of dollars for articles because they don’t know how to remotely access their university entitlements.”
Educate students on how to analyze content
Librarians can help students understand the different elements of a research paper. “They can also help you figure out which sections you should focus on, depending on your level and end-goal. For example, for my graduate coursework, it wasn't necessary for me to understand the complexities of research methodology, I just needed to establish what the researchers wanted to know, how they tried to figure it out, and what they ultimately found.
“Librarians can also help students learn how to test a paper’s rigor; for example, checking for alignment between sections (i.e., did the researchers discussion align with their results?) And Librarians can explain that science evolves and changes over time and that that's okay - it doesn't make science less trustworthy, or less accurate; it is simply the nature of how knowledge develops.”
Introduce students to the research community
Learning that science is a community which communicates through scholarship to achieve a common goal is something students often miss in regular class instruction. “I was in my third year in graduate school before that idea really hit home for me. I was not encouraged to go to conferences or even engage with the people behind the literature that I was reading, namely faculty at other universities and research institutes. Yet, conferences are really the crux of community engagement and are where some of your best ideas can take shape – they get your name out there and help you build networks and your brand as a researcher. Librarians can help students find suitable conferences to attend and suggest how to actively participate in them.
“Mendeley can also help here. It is an academic social network which has essentially evolved into a LinkedIn for academics. So, the more interaction students have on Mendeley, the better."
Start students on the path to becoming a peer reviewer Kristina explains: “Help students to select the journals to apply to as a peer reviewer or, more simply, learn how to become a peer reviewer. It might be helpful to know that Elsevier’s Research Academy offers a free peer reviewer certification course(opens in new tab/window) specifically for graduate students. It explains the peer review process, and they can use the certificate they gain to apply for their first peer review assignment.”