Teaching critical scientific thinking pays off: Students’ reviews published in Journal of Neuroscience

August 12, 2015 | News, Medicine and Life Sciences, UTMC
By Samantha Watson



Six students in the Neurosciences and Neurological Disorders Graduate Program at The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences have had review articles accepted for publication in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Eric Starr, Jack Imbery, Stuart Collins, Amanda Blaker, Erin Semple and Carmen Mitchell took the UT course Journal Paper Review in Neuroscience last spring. The course — designed and taught by Dr. Marthe Howard and Dr. Joseph Margiotta, both professors of neurosciences — aims to teach young scientists to read and think critically, evaluate and discuss research with their peers and the scientific community, and give effective oral presentations.

The students learn how to give and take criticism, and work with editors of scientific journals that many of them will someday publish articles in.

“They get real-world experience, as scientists, in oral communication, written communication, and learning the ins and outs of publishing a paper,” Howard said.

The course curriculum is given in two parts. In the first half, Howard and Margiotta select recent papers in the field of neuroscience for the students to present. One of the students presents the paper, while the others write a one-page review and come prepared to ask the presenter questions.

In the following class meeting, the students critique the oral presentation. The course is designed to encourage in-class participation and development of critical questioning skills.

“Part of being a good, critical scientist is knowing how to make a critique in a positive way because peer review is designed to be something that’s helpful,” Howard said. “You also have to learn to take criticism in the way it was intended.”

In the second half of the class, the students split into two teams and choose a current paper in the Journal of Neuroscience or the Journal of Physiology to review. Both journals invite graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to submit scholarly reviews of recently published articles.

Prior to writing their review, the two groups present the paper to the class and justify their choice. They then collaborate in writing the review and submitting it to the journal’s editors for feedback and decision on whether the journal will publish the review.

This is a valuable experience for the students because it reflects their ability to demonstrate in writing the knowledge needed to critically evaluate the published work and present their independent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the experiments, according to Howard.

“Although all of these students have to have a published paper to finish their dissertation, for many this will be the first time they’ve written and submitted a paper on their own,” she said.

Previously, the class has had one team’s review published, but this year both teams’ reviews were accepted for publication in the July 15 and July 29 issues of the Journal of Neuroscience, the official publication of the Society for Neuroscience. Publication of articles in this prestigious journal signifies the success of training in skills critical for developing scientists, according to Howard.

“It is not our goal to write these papers for the students, so the quality of the students is really reflected in their ability to get these papers published,” Howard said. “I see a lot of value in teaching young scientists outstanding communication skills, and this group of students did very well.”

To learn more about this course, email Marthe.Howard@utoledo.edu or Joseph.Margiotta@utoledo.edu.