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Information Literacy


What Should Physics Majors Know?

  • How to find articles
    • What the standard journals, magazines, and online popularizations (such as Physical Review Focus) are and the differences between different types.
    • How to use standard databases.
    • Searching citations forward and backward.
  • How to read physics articles: Getting through technical material, looking up extra information as needed (in texts, physics encyclopedias, and handbooks), and "reading around" passages they are having trouble with instead of just giving up.
  • How to present scientific information: Writing clearly, the different sections of an article, using software for equations and citations, presenting data graphically, how to include information about uncertainty, giving presentations.
  • How to use the Web and how not to use the Web.
  • Ethical issues: plagiarism, citing.

Writing Intensive Classes

Students who have taken writing intensive classes should already have learned basic information skills and be able to:

  • Define and articulate the need for information and identify a variety of types and formats of potential sources for information beyond the web search engine
  • Identify some kinds of information they need – typically writing intensive courses focus on non-scientific types of information such as biographical, historical, or literary -- and to know where to find it. In other words, they should be familiar with various electronic resources and some reference books. They should also be aware that web search engines are often inadequate for scholarly research.
  • Articulate and apply initial criteria for evaluating both the information and its sources – what is a source’s reliability? Who wrote it? When? Who published it?
    Students should be able to distinguish between popular and scholarly materials in a variety of formats such as books, periodical literature, and websites.
  • Acknowledge and cite the sources used in conducting research for an assignment using an acceptable style guide. Citations are appropriate in that students can discern when it is necessary to cite sources, and provide citations in an appropriate and consistent format. Students can identify ethical and unethical citations, per the online plagiarism quiz.

These skills may be regarded by all students as a base for further study. Help is available through the Smith College Libraries’ Ask a Librarian options.

Beginning Physics Majors

At the end of the introductory sequence (PHY115 or 117 and PHY118) physics students should be able to:

  • Write reports that include the major sections of an article - abstract, introduction, body, conclusions, and references.
  • Graphically present information in a clear and accurate manner (including basic uncertainty analysis, where useful and appropriate).
  • Appropriately cite sources.
  • Identify (and avoid using) plagiarism.

After taking intermediate lab (PHY250) physics students should be able to:

  • Locate journal articles through databases and citation searches, both backwards and forwards.
  • Use software to write a paper with proper citations (RefWorks, Bibtex) and with typeset mathematical equations (equation editor, LaTeX).

Advanced Students

Advanced students should be able to:

  • Locate articles from a variety of sources ranging from general magazines (e.g. Physics Today) and general journals (e.g. Physical Review A-E).
  • Cite appropriately.
  • Write an article in proper scientific format with all necessary sections.
  • Give a presentation on a scientific topic using a clear outline, good speaking skills, and good use of visual aids.
  • Read technical articles even when they lack some background knowledge in the field.
  • Find relevant background material (e.g. in physics encyclopedias and handbooks), critiques (e.g. comments and responses), and popularizations to aid their understanding of technical articles
  • Critically analyze the validity of different sources, in particular websites.

Specific Journals and Databases


Science Call Number/Online Access
Scientific American T 1 .S5 / online
American Scientist  Q 1 .A4 / online
Physics Today QC 1 .P658 / online
Science (magazine articles) Q 1 .S35 / online
Nature (magazine articles) Q 1 .N2 / online



Science Call Number/Online Access
Physical Review A-E library catalog / journal locator
Physical Review Letters QC 1 .P43 / online
Reviews of Modern Physics QC 1 .R4 / online
Science (journal articles) Q 1 .S35 / online
Nature (journal articles) Q 1 .N2 / online



Web of Science (Science Citation Index click here
Los Alamos eprint server (arXiv) click here
inSPIRE click here

In Which Classes Should Students Learn These Skills?

The Physics Department proposes to incorporate information literacy into the following courses:


Beginning PHY 115/117: Introductory General Physics I
PHY 118: Introductory General Physics II
PHY 250: Intermediate Laboratory
Advanced PHY 300: Current Topics in Physics
PHY 220: Classical Mechanics
PHY 348: Thermal Physics
PHY 340: Quantum Physics

In the introductory courses (PHY 115/117/118) students will primarily learn about citing and plagiarism via their lab reports. In intermediate lab students will be assigned library research and will learn how to locate and use articles.

The biggest focus of information literacy training in our curriculum will be in PHY 300, “Current Topics in Physics.” In this course students will be expected to locate and read journal articles, attend physics talks, and do their own writing and presenting. All of the skills described above will be taught and/or reinforced in this class.

These skills will then be further reinforced in our upper level required courses, where students will be asked to read and discuss journal articles in the different areas covered by the courses. In thermal physics students will also write a research paper, thus applying the skills that they have learned.

In addition to the information literacy in these required courses, there will be additional content for students doing honors or taking upper level physics electives.

(Note that in the near future we expect to systematically renumber physics course numbering. These course titles should remain the same.)

In What Ways Will Student Skills be Assessed?

In each of the classes above students will be given assignments that reflect the skills appropriate to that level. The standards used for grading will be progressively higher as the students progress through the curriculum. In intermediate laboratory students will be graded on a specific library research project that will their mastery of the skills listed above for beginning physics majors. In the current topics course students’ grades will be largely based on their ability to locate and present information. Finally, in thermal physics they will have to pull all of these skills together to research and write a full journal-style article.

Ethical Issues

Our primary ethical concern in students’ use of information is the avoidance of plagiarism. Students will learn in introductory physics lab how to properly cite sources, and even more importantly when information needs to be cited. The need for giving proper credit to one’s sources will be emphasized and enforced throughout the curriculum.

August 16 , 2007