2 Jul 2015

Analyzing a journal article for basic themes, roles of authors, and the scientific method

Literature Discussion

Submitted by Darren Achey, Kutztown University

This literature discussion is meant to give students an understanding of both the key concept-driven and more “meta” information of a literature paper.  Students will use Jillian Dempsey’s paper, “Electrochemical hydrogenation of a homogeneous nickel complex to form a surface-adsorbed hydrogen-evolving species,” to investigate paper authorship, how the scientific method is used in research, and how to understand the important findings of a research article.


Reference: Chem. Commun., 2015, 51, 5290-5293



For a general chemistry course, questions 1-4, 7, and 10 could be utilized to expose students to the format of literature articles without diving too deeply into content.


For an advanced inorganic course, all questions could be used to include some introductory content to the discussion.


This learning object was developed at the 2015 NSF sponsored cCWCS VIPEr workshop at University of Washington where we were fortunate to hear Prof. Jillian Dempsey present this research. It is worth mentioning that the first author of this paper was an undergraduate student at UNC-CH. The Dempsey’s research lab focuses on developing new technology to support a solar energy economy through catalysis.

Learning Goals: 

After completing this activity, the student will be able to:

  • access different parts of a paper and its supplementary information for different levels of understanding.
  • use information in a paper to determine the intent behind published research and how it fits into a larger purpose.
  • see that chemical research builds on earlier work and is an iterative process in which direction can change based on new information.
  • understand the difference between homogenous and heterogeneous catalysis
  • identify and define inorganic chemistry related terms
Implementation Notes: 

The first author of this publication, Daniel J. Martin is an undergraduate student!  It may be worth mentioning this fact to the students and to help them understand that in the academic world publications are the “currency” needed for career advancement.  We envision that the students will receive a copy of the article as well as the student handout containing the discussion questions several days prior to the discussion.  The faculty member may also choose to omit one or more questions from the student handout and only ask them during the discussion period.

Time Required: 
0.5-1.5 hours
Evaluation Methods: 

Options for assessment include:

  • Students can complete the questions and submit their responses which are then evaluated for clear understanding of the concepts (For example: Is the student able to describe clearly the purpose behind the paper?)
  • Students can be evaluated for the quality of their contributions to in-class discussion (Is it evident that the student read the paper?)
  • Students can be asked follow up questions on a later exam (Can the student recall the basic principles discussed in the activity?)
Evaluation Results: 

We have no results at this time for this newly created activity.  If you use this object in Fall 2015, please post comments to this LO so we can include yours results!

Creative Commons License: 
Creative Commons Licence


I used this activity in Spring 2016 with my junior/senior-level  inorganic class. They were given the assignment as homework in advance of an in-class debriefing/discusion.

I made some minor revisions to the original activity. Most importantly, students are asked to find the authors on their research group website. Over time, more of the article's authors will be found under group alumni, than in the current group directory. The activity was revised to guide students appropriately. Also, the term used in the paper is "Electronic Supplementarty Information" or ESI (not just SI).


Nine students submitted responses. Only a few questions were problematic for the students.

Question 3 deals with the original hypothesis of the paper, whether it was supported by the experimental evidence, and how the project aim changed over time. Two students mistakenly thought the original purpose was to degrade the compounds to form the active catalyst on a surface. The other students gathered correctly that the original purpose was to use the ligand to provide proton docking sites. However, five of these students thought the outcome supported this hypothesis. Overall, this question was likely too indirect (vague, even) for the majority of my students to see the key point. I was not suprised at this. The in-class session was helpful in addressing these details.


The question that took me completely aback was question 7: Write the balanced equation of H2 evolution.

Six of the nine students missed this question. The phrase "evolution of hydrogen" implies something completely different to them, and so they wrote H2 as a reactant and showed it changing somehow. Their confusion over this use of "evolution" is perhaps understandable given its more familar use in biology. A better phrase might be "production of hydrogen", but at the same time I want them to graduate knowing what it means to evolve a gaseous product in a chemical context.

Two students missed question 8 and one missed question 5. 


The VIPEr community supports respectful and voluntary sharing. Click here for a description of our default Creative Commons license.