Writing Psych3BN3 critiques:

Guidelines, Marking scheme, and Common pitfalls and tips

1. General guidelines

The main purpose of writing critiques in this course is to develop your skills at critical appraisal and evaluation of the behavioural neuroscience scientific literature. It will quickly become clear that nearly everything published in the literature is at least somewhat controversial and open to alternate interpretations. Even top-notch scientists can draw conclusions that are clouded by their own theoretical biases.

Format:Your critique should be no more than 2 pages typed double-spaced with 1-inch margins and 12-point font. The article you are critiquing should be cited in APA style e.g. "Brown et al (2002) found that ...". You do not need to include a bibliography unless you cite additional references. The ideal critique will contain no more than a 0.5 page very succinct summary capturing the major points in the paper, followed by 1.5 pages discussing two or three or so major issues. An example of a major issue is the following: "From their study of Alzheimer's patients, the authors were trying to draw conclusions regarding the functions of the frontal lobes, but in fact the fMRI brain images of their Alzheimer's patients showed widespread cortical damage. It is therefore unclear whether the memory deficits seen in these patients were due to frontal damage or damage elsewhere in the brain. For example, a general memory deficit could also be due to temporal lobe damage. An alternative explanation for the findings is that these patients might have a general deficit of attention rather than one of memory; this was not tested for." Other things that might be raised in a critique: you could point out some factor that wasn't controlled for in a study, or some other way in which it was incomplete. Any criticism you make of a paper should be backed up by direct evidence from the paper (and possibly from other things you've read). On a more positive side, you could also discuss ways in which the work could have been done better, directions for future work, related issues that could be studied by similar methods etc.

2. Marking scheme

Critiques are marked on a 20-point scale:
Spelling/Grammar/ Structure (2 points)
The critique should be free of any major spelling or grammar mistakes. The structure of the critique should make sense: introduction, body, and conclusion. Transitions between paragraphs and ideas should not be abrupt but linked coherently together.
Summary (3 points)
Summarize the paper briefly. Describe a bit of background on why the study was done, what motivated the work? What were the important questions being asked? What were the hypotheses? What were the predictions? Briefly describe the methods, and the results, and link them back to the predictions and hypotheses. Did the authors feel their ideas were verified by the results? Note that your summary should not paraphrase or quote material from the paper, it should be written entirely in your own words. If you are unsure about the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing, please see the followign link: http://www.utoronto.ca/ucwriting/paraphrase.html
Critique (10 points)
Each critique should take on 2-3 points. Specifics are important here. The goal is to really show synthesis and extension of the ideas in the paper and information learned in lectures and other presentations and class discussions.
When making a point of criticism describe what the issue is using specifics: How did this issue specifically affect results? Why? Did the authors address the criticism at all? What results does it invalidate? Does it affect the authors' conclusions? What should be done differently to address the issue? How can it be avoided? Again the more specific you are the better.
You can address positive points in the paper as well. What was particularly well done in the staudy described in the paper, and what did it reveal? What critical controls did they employ that allowed them to rule out alternative interpretations?
Extension/Future work (5 points)
Include possible extensions of the research or future work that could be done. In the critique section make sure you're addressing points about how you might avoid pitfalls, or how really good techniques or points could be integrated into other work.
Extend beyond the ideas presented in the paper. What new questions have emerged? What direction would you like to see research move in next? How might you do things differently? Just like the critique the more specific you can be the better.

3. Common pitfalls and tips

The most common mistake students make is to write a book report on the paper, basically a 2 page summary of the research. While we do ask you to summarize the paper it should be only a small part of your paper. What we are really looking for is critical thought and analysis, of synthesizing information from the class into a critique of the paper. Do not just summarize and report.

Another common mistake is to not use any specifics. You should say a lot more than just "the methods used in the second experiment were flawed". What specifically was flawed, and how did it affect the results and conclusions?

Avoid critical points that could apply to almost any other paper or similar research. If the paper is using an animal model don't use a general criticism like "research on animals might not extrapolate well to people". If you feel it is a really important point, explain why the criticism applies specifically to that, e.g. was there something about the animal model used that was particularly faulty?

Points in the critique can be positive. You might come across a paper that you really liked, and don't see obvious flaws, or maybe there was something really great that they did. Your critique can include positive points, just make sure you're still demonstrating synthesis and not merely reporting or summarizing. Why was it so good? What would the consequences have been if not used? How could it be used in other research?

Don't ignore future work or extensions. While the critique is important try to work in your ideas about the direction in which you would like to see future research in this area.

And last but not least, don't save all your critiques till the last few are due. The earlier you complete them in the course the more time you have to get feedback and the more chances you have to improve your grade.