Reading classical papers as an educational tool

Using a classic paper by I. E. Lawton and N. B. Schwartz to consider the array of factors that control luteinizing hormone production:

Two significant benefits derived from reading and discussing classic scientific papers in undergraduate biology courses are 1) providing students with the realistic perspective that science is an ongoing process (rather than a set of inarguable facts) and 2) deepening the students’ understanding of physiological processes. A classic paper that is useful in both of these regards is by I. E. Lawton and N. B. Schwartz (A circadian rhythm of luteinizing hormone secretion in ovariectomized rats. Am J Physiol 214: 213-217, 1968). The primary objective of the study is to determine whether tonic (pulsatile) secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland exhibits a circadian rhythm. While this hypothesis seems relatively straightforward, its in vivo investigation necessitates an awareness of the multitude of factors, in addition to the circadian clock, that can influence plasma LH levels (and a consideration of how to control for these factors in the experimental design). Furthermore, discussion of the historical context in which the study was conducted (i.e., before the pulsatile nature of LH secretion had been discovered) provides students with the realistic perspective that science is not a set of facts but rather a systematic series of attempts by scientists to understand reality (a perspective that is difficult to convey using a traditional textbook alone). A review of the historical context in which the study was conducted, and a series of discovery learning questions are included to facilitate classroom discussions and to help deepen students’ understanding of the complex nature of pituitary hormone regulation.

Oh yes, I remember the Lawton and Schwartz paper – I have read it a couple of times in my life. And I agree that reading classical papers is a great educational tool. It will be even better in the future when then classical papers will also have years of comments, links, trackbacks and annotations added to them, right there on the paper, for everyone to see how the thinking about the paper changed over time and how the science of the topic progressed since it was first published.

5 responses to “Reading classical papers as an educational tool

  1. Open Access is wonderful for that sort of collaboration, but an even more fundamental problem for classic papers is that many aren’t even online! In my coursework, I came across citations to papers from past Cold Spring Harbor meetings (e.g. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology), whose proceedings aren’t available except in book form, even as recently as 1997!

  2. I agree that reading classic papers, even if certain aspects of the ideas/procedures are out of date, it’s really instructive to learn the history of how current ideas and theories developed.
    Last spring I took a “Classic Readings in Ecology” course and felt like it was a big benefit to me. We read the original Kettlewell (peppered moth) paper, a few early Wilson publications, the Murdoch paper of predator-prey models, and many more. It was an entirely discussion based class (ie no lectures or tests, just analysis papers and discussion), and it was a really great way to learn about how ecologists think about and design experiments (both now and in the past).

  3. I actually taught a graduate seminar in Classical Papers in Behavioral Biology. Each week I matched an old, truly classical paper with its most recent counterpart. Comparing and contrasting papers on the same topic that were published decades apart was quite edifying and produced some great discussions in class (which was attended by several faculty, actually).

  4. Not just classic papers though. I learned more by reading recent papers in my fields, even ones that were not really significant, because it made me use the terminology I needed to learn and allowed me to see methods that are used in science. Textbooks are great references but do not teach one how to do science, papers do.
    For example, in one class we read a paper on age dating of creosote bush clones by the radius from the center of a ring. Using their methods we were able to date some creosote bushes just beside campus as clones of a bush that had started growing about 2000 years ago.
    Vasek F. C. 1980 Creosote bush, long-lived clones in the Mojave desert. American Journal of Botany 67: 246-255

  5. Sorry, Using his methods.