What Isn’t Being Taught to New Chemistry Researchers (Hint: Information Literacy and Scholarly Publishing)


Earning a PhD in a technical field can be a harrowing process. The content is complex, the competition is stiff, and the workload is heavy. I earned my PhD in computational chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 2016. The first year consisted primarily of taking fundamental chemistry classes like quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and dynamics, and trying to decide on an area of interest for future research. The coursework was rigorous, interesting, and useful. So, my fellow students and I were shocked to discover that many of us felt lost when we were given our first set of research related tasks.

We were largely left on our own when it came to learning how to perform a literature search, organize data, and write/publish journal articles.

What Grad Students Aren’t Learning in School

In many cases, the goal of graduate education seems to be to produce academics, rather than seasoned professional researchers that could work anywhere. Since the number of qualified post-doctoral engineering students outnumber the number of academic positions by more than 7-to-1 in the United States, universities should include more courses on professional development to make sure that students can find – and be successful – in jobs elsewhere.

The key information that many graduate students are missing when they begin looking for jobs are proper information seeking and organization skills, as well as methods of effectively communicating their work.

If the research process is essentially three stages:

1) reading the literature,

2) doing the experiment, and

3) communicating the results,

 then most students in graduate school are only truly prepared for the second stage. The practical research skills necessary for steps one and three are often not covered in any graduate coursework. Students generally develop these skills informally through interactions with more experienced graduate students or post-docs, which can be a massive waste of time and resources for all parties involved.

It should not be left to private companies or non-profit organizations to give professional training after universities have had more than nine years of undergraduate and graduate school to do so, but unfortunately it is often left to corporate librarians at chemical companies to bring new hires up to speed on these required skills.

Engaging with the new corporate researcher

In my new job at Vanderbilt University, I have had the opportunity to design and teach a course on Chemical Literature that directly addressed how to find, read, and publish research. Information literacy skills are needed everywhere, so the lessons that I developed at Vanderbilt would apply if taught within a corporate setting as well.

The following topics, which I cover in the Chemical Literature course should serve as a general guide for creating a corporate library training series for corporate researchers.

Performing Literature Search

Many bright PhD students at Vanderbilt have asked questions about finding and understanding journal articles that they thought were embarrassing. Questions like, “How do I read a research paper?”, “How do I perform a literature search?”, and “How can I stay up-to-date on the literature?” were common.

As such, the first topic I covered in Chemical Literature was how to perform a literature search and save articles with citation management software. I used a concept called citation chaining, whereby students use an influential review article as a seed to grow their libraries by examining the articles citing and cited by this work. I also explained how to select keywords, use Boolean operators effectively, and create citation alerts based on these searches to stay updated on the newest developments in any field. Many of the students had never tried these methods before and were extremely grateful to see them formally demonstrated. The basic idea in the design of this section of the course was to teach generalizable research skills with a few databases (e.g. SciFinder, PubChem, Reaxys, Web of Science) that students could then adapt to the specific needs of their research groups.

Familiarize Researchers with Scientific Publications at their Disposal

The Chemical Literature course also covered basic research communication by familiarizing students with scientific publication. This section covered the history and purpose of scientific journals, the types of information provided in patents, protocols, reviews, and articles, as well as how the modern publishing process works. The students were given the opportunity to speak with the long-time editor of a well-known chemistry journal to learn how the writing of submitted publications is judged for quality and relevance. An acquisitions librarian spoke to the students about the costs associated with publication, the utility and ethics of submitting pre-prints, peer review methods, and open access journals. This knowledge provided context to the research process that students often do not get. Knowing what types of research different journals are looking for and how journal editors think can help with research design and improve the effectiveness of student’s writing. Knowing the history, challenges, and costs of publication could help the next generation of scientists improve research communication more generally.

By implementing training sessions for new researchers that bridge the gaps in their information literacy skills, corporate librarians can have a substantial impact on the success not only of the new researcher, but the whole organization.

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Did you know? When using RightFind Enterprise, extensive training support is provided, so both administrators and end users with varying workflows can quickly and comfortably begin adopting their new tools. Learn more about RightFind Enterprise for Chemical Companies here.

Joshua Borycz

Author: Joshua Borycz

Joshua Borycz is a Librarian for STEM Research at Vanderbilt University. He has a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and a Master’s Degree in Information Science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His PhD work focused on quantum mechanical calculations of metal-organic frameworks to determine potential applications in magnetic sensing, small molecule filtration, and catalysis. After performing chemistry research for 5 years Joshua became interested in how the research practice itself might be improved. His research focus during his Master’s in Information Science was on the data management and sharing attitudes and practices of scientists. The goal of this research was to determine the barriers that prevent scientists from organizing and sharing data and to work towards removing those barriers to establish open data practices. Currently he is a STEM Librarian at Vanderbilt University that teaches information literacy, advises faculty on data management methods, and performs information and social science research.

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