Working Hard on a Paper

phd092111sWhat does it mean to say that you “worked hard on a paper?”  Consider these two hypothetical students writing about the nucleus accumbens:

Sue Perfishle:

  • Spent hours online finding a handful of full-text articles with the word “accumbens” in the title.
  • Read the abstracts to find the key sentences about what was done and what was found.
  • Read the introductions to find older references about the accumbens.
  • Searched for full-text versions of these older papers.
  • Sought sentences in the various papers that seemed to have something to do with the function of the accumbens.
  • Painstakingly cobbled together a 6-page paper by cutting and pasting these sentences, re-arranging them and substituting synonyms.


Anne Durstuhd:

  • Read the textbook to see what it said about the accumbens.
  • Read some of the articles cited by the textbook authors to learn more about the accumbens.
  • Formulated an idea about what the accumbens might do for behavior.
  • Sought articles related to this hypothesis.
  • Read more and revised the hypothesis.
  • Sought more articles and read them.
  • Came to a conclusion about the accumbens, and wrote about it based on the new-found knowledge.

The scientific content of the two papers might be comparable, if one judged solely on the basis of number of facts per page.  The scientific quality of the second will be far better, because it reflects a thesis; the facts presented are more likely to hang together in some relevant manner.

It’s also a safe bet that Anne could tell me about the accumbens — what we know about it and what it might do for behavior — without referring to notes, articles, or the final paper. Sue would struggle to do this, perhaps being capable of repeating some of the phrases from the paper but without understanding.

Don’t be Sue; strive to be Anne.

[Note – I found a draft of this on 11/24/2014, the evening before papers are due in Neuroscience I.  Not sure why I didn’t post it two years ago when I first wrote it, but I think I ought to post it now.]

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