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Should non-experts read research papers?

  1. Mar 31, 2012 #1
    ...Stuff publicly available on on arxiv, pubmed etc.

    I quite often dig around in google scholar but i really don't stand a chance of interpreting how relevant any particular paper is to it's field. 'Summary' papers can be quite enlightening in that they outline where stuff might potentially be headed, but even then... maybe i'd probably be better off sticking to textbooks (or even wikipedia).

    Also, when does the focus of science education shift from studying textbooks to studying the papers the textbooks are based on? Or do you go straight from textbooks to new research papers?

    I suppose there must be textbooks written specifically for phd students...just wondering how much people read papers before they specialize and outside of what they specialize in.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 31, 2012 #2


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    There's nothing stopping you and I think it's great that anyone can get access to information: this to me is the greatest change in the history of the world - the access for the masses to information - it changes everything.

    In terms of the shift from education textbooks to papers, it's not so clear cut. In some areas, it is actually very easy to digest a paper and in others, a lot of training to understand not only notation but the development of an entire field is required so again it's not a textbook for this, paper for that kind of thing.

    You are right in that there are many books for many topics that are written for graduate students, but what I have found in reading a variety of books is that many of the books are very self-contained: in other words they contain all the stuff you need to know and they don't assume that you are specialist in a particular field, but instead that you have enough maturity in the subject itself but not so much that you need to be a specialist: I see lot of textbooks that do this and the books have a lot of stuff that a specialist won't need to read, but an outside or a newcomer will and this solves two problems at once.

    The thing is that many things are becoming interdisciplinary and for this to work and for people to get to a point where they can do something useful quickly, authors and other people involved in the writing process need to be aware of this and in my observations, many are aware of this.

    The thing is though, if you want to understand something in detail you need to be actively doing it in some way: thinking about it, doing problems or projects, talking to other people about it and seeing what other people have to say.

    I don't think that you need university to do this, but what I have observed being a university student myself is that it makes a hell of a lot easier than it would be if you did it yourself. It's a strength in some ways and aweakness in others, but there is still a reason why social issues are still a huge part in learning in general.

    In terms of papers like the ones you find in journals, I would tend to say that most of them will be specialized to a point where you need to be an expert of some kind. Journals are not textbooks and do not have the same goals that a textbook, monography, exposition, survey or interdisciplinary book would have and the journal also has expectations on the kinds of papers accepted as well as how the actual paper should be presented, it's language and so on.

    I would say that if you need to find something, then you could a) search for it yourself b) ask someone else who you are confident will give you decent advice about where to find said material or c) just ask many people and make a judgement call on what you think the best advice is (or you might think it all stinks and then you try again somewhere else).
  4. Mar 31, 2012 #3
    Yes, it's pretty astonishing! There was an article in one fo the UK newspapers last year about research that linked the efficiency and pace of the German industrial revolution with the fact that they had minimal intellectual property laws at that time. So ordinary people could afford books and stuff, which apparently made things take off far faster there than elsewhere. Maybe that amounts to historical precedent for opening things up still further.

    I dunno, I enjoy reading journals even if i can only hope to get the gist of it as a non-expert, but i worry i might be getting a slanted view of things. I suppose the appeal is that that's where all the action is, even if i don't really understand it. Textbooks seem kind of lifeless by comparison, although that's probably my own fault for trying to jump the gun!
  5. Mar 31, 2012 #4


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    I hope so myself.

    By all means don't stop reading the journals especially because some idiot on a forum said so! If you want to know something, with the right effort, attitude, and time you will. The only thing I really recommend though is to talk to people that are in the field. The internet is a great place to do this without having to splurge tens of thousands of dollars on a degree if you can find someone willing to listen and nowadays I find that many people are willing to listen.

    Keep at it!
  6. Mar 31, 2012 #5
    Sure. How else are you going to learn about and keep up with the evolving status quo?
  7. Mar 31, 2012 #6
    Depends on your definition of "non-expert." I think it's great for interested and educated laymen to check out the arXiv and pubmed, but I don't think the general public would get any use out of it.
  8. Mar 31, 2012 #7


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    Dearly Missed

    You'd be better off investing in subscribing to a high-profile publication as "Nature".
    The articles there ARE top-notch, and if you dig deeper into any one particular field and finds you can follow the content, THEN you might start a constructive sifting process at arxiv
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