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Thoughts on Mastering the Chemical Literature

Dana Roth posted the following on CHMINF-L yesterday, an excerpt from an interview with photochemisty Nick Turro, in which Turro talks about mastering the chemical literature. Turro's comments are timely and encouraging, and speak directly to the importance of information literacy.

You can never totally master the literature. But there are certain levels of mastery that are essential and are straightforwardly achievable by all students. In fact, there is a certain attitude that students should take with respect to the literature. Most students don't fully appreciate the importance of this attitude until they discover that somebody knows something that they themselves should have known and could have known if they had studied the literature properly.

The basic attitude required is that you should be familiar with enough of the literature so that you never unnecessarily repeat work published in the past and that you should be aware in broad strokes of what has been published in the past. Students need to be aware that when a paper is submitted for publication, a lack of knowledge of the literature leaves them open to the professional embarrassment that occurs when some knowledgeable referee cites data published in the past that supports (pleasant surprise), or undermines (awful surprise), or duplicates (unpleasant surprise) what you've reported, and says, "You really should have known about this work."

... Due to their dependence on the web, students don't seem to know how to use a library effectively any more. Rather than go to the library, they go to the web, and punch in a few key words. Something comes up or something doesn't come up. And to them, that's it. If it doesn't come up, it doesn't exist.

... I can accept that a starting student who gets into a new area, wants to get into the laboratory and splash around a little. But only up to a certain point, especially when the results are not working out. You know somebody made it work out in the past, then you've got to get into the literature and dig. Yet in some cases the student still doesn't stop and check the literature. It is fundamentally inexcusable and there is no way to condone such an attitude. It's what I will call fundamentally unprofessional behavior.

... Somebody spends an enormous amount of time writing a review or a book and sometimes their great reviews are not cited because nobody knows they exist. The only way you know it's there is to spend hours in the library looking though, say, Advances in Photochemistry or Organic Photochemistry and seeing what articles are there.

... Every Saturday, if I can, I go down to the library and go through about 40-50 journals by hand. I use a spreadsheet in a lab notebook to keep track of any article that I think is, or might be, of future interest, and I make brief notations about each article.

Excerpted from, "how to skate on the edge of the paradigm ... keep from falling off", an interview with Nicholas J. Turro (who received the ACS 2004 George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education). Nick is a Caltech graduate (1963), who has been at Columbia since 1965.

The full interview is in The Spectrum (2004), 17(1), 4-9,34

- Dana L. Roth

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