One goal of Science in Society is “to make the community aware of the exciting research efforts at Northwestern University and across the world.” That’s a really big task! There is always exciting research going on, here on campus and in the rest of the research community, and sharing all of it would require a very large staff. So, we try to find the most exciting new studies and experiments out there, and explain them in a way that everybody can understand.
Pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately, explaining things in a way that is suitable for a very broad audience can be tricky sometimes. One reason is that some scientific concepts are pretty complicated, and may require a lot of background. In some of those cases, there simply isn’t enough space to include every piece of information relevant to the story, so we have to make an educated guess about what our readers know before reading. I can’t speak for everybody who writes here at Science in Society, but I know that sometimes I guess wrong!
Fortunately, the magic of the Internet makes it super easy for readers to fill in whatever gaps in understanding they may have. Here’s a list of some resources where you can find answers to a lot of the questions you may have when reading articles about science:
Wikipedia: I had a whole bookshelf full of encyclopedias when I was in high school, and they probably didn’t contain 10 percent of the information available on Wikipedia. Because of its size and the fact that anyone can add or change information on a page, moderating the accuracy of content on Wikipedia can be challenging, especially for popular topics. However, the broadest and most basic scientific concepts are usually described very accurately and clearly, with lots of pictures and references. If you’ve got a general question (e.g. What is fMRI? or When was DNA first sequenced?) then Wikipedia should be your first stop.
PubMed: Now you’re digging deeper, into the primary research. PubMed catalogues more than 20 million different citations from peer-reviewed publications about basic and health sciences. They make it wicked easy to find more specific information than you can get on Wikipedia – for instance, if you want to find studies from a particular author, or see what people published about genetics in the last month, PubMed can filter results to your liking. A lot of the articles are available for free, too! This is always my first stop when doing a literature review.
Google Scholar: Similar to PubMed, Scholar catalogues abstracts and citations from a wide range of publications, including journals, books, and conference proceedings. Scholar also lets you link your Google account to your university library account, which gives you access to articles that are behind a paywall (which is a lot). Scholar isn’t restricted to science, however, or even peer-reviewed publications, so make sure you use some common sense when going through the results. It has seen some big improvements in the last couple of years, and I suspect that Google will continue to make it better.
Your university library: Often times it seems like the library requires the most effort to find an answer to a question, but that’s not always true. Library websites are becoming better organized, and can give you direct links to whatever journals and electronic resources that you’re trying to find. If a book pops up on a Google Scholar search, for example, you can often times find an electronic version of that book via your library. And libraries have one of the best tools available for someone doing research: librarians! Seriously, librarians today often have degrees in information science or other fields where they’ve learned how to organize and find information quickly and efficiently. Librarians are awesome.
Scientists/Science Writers: Finally, you can almost always get in touch with the people who write about the things you find interesting, either through comments on specific posts, or on social media. It behooves us as writers and (wannabe) scientists to know our audience as best we can, and there’s no better way to do that than via direct interaction. You can get in touch with me on twitter (@jimkloet) and Google+ (Jim Kloet); if you ever have any questions or feedback about my articles, by all means let me know!