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Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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7.2 Preparing a glossary

You may have already come across a certain amount of new or unfamiliar scientific information while working through this section of the course. This is a natural part of the learning process, and is commonplace in disciplines with lots of specialist language and terminology, but it can seem daunting at times.

An important skill – both when learning for leisure or for a qualification, and possibly in your career, too – is to be able to quickly and confidently find definitions for unfamiliar terms, and make note of them for future reference. The terms that you include in such a glossary can be entirely of your choosing, because its purpose is solely to help you better understand what you are reading about.

There are many online dictionaries and encyclopedias that you can use to compile your own glossary as you learn. For example, you could choose to search general dictionaries (such as the Oxford Dictionaries website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), which will provide a basic definition of a term. This may be enough information to explain a term, or to confirm or enhance your understanding of it.

Alternatively, you could use a subject specific dictionary, to access a potentially more detailed definition. Many specialised dictionaries are available via the Oxford References website. Sadly, many other such dictionaries are currently only available in printed format, although you may be able to find copies in your local library.

If you require a much more detailed definition, then an encyclopedia may be a better choice. Such entries are likely to provide a lot of information – some of which might not be relevant to your particular line of enquiry – so you may need to be more selective when summarising the details in your own glossary entry for the term.

The first resource that comes to mind when thinking about encyclopedias may be Wikipedia, but this may not always be the best place to start. (You will consider the quality of some information from Wikipedia in the next section.) Other such resources are available, though, and a popular alternative is the Encyclopaedia Britannica website.

Optional activity: exploring encyclopedia entries

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes.

Use the Encyclopaedia Britannica website to further your understanding of the term ‘bioplastic’. Then briefly explain why bioplastics are currently not widely used in manufacturing. (Limit your answer to two or three sentences.)

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The short answer is that the cost of bioplastics and the efficiency with which they can be produced are currently barriers to their use in manufacturing. To quote the bioplastics entry, ‘Bioplastics currently make up an insignificant portion of total world production of plastics. Commercial manufacturing processes are plagued by low yields and are expensive’ (Fridovich-Keil, 2016).

It is noteworthy that if you were to use this information in a report, you should write it in your own words to confirm and demonstrate your understanding, but also cite the source of the original information, as has been done here.

The advantage of using an online dictionary or encyclopaedia in comparison to a simple web search is that you can (generally) be more confident of the accuracy of the information that you obtain, and you avoid a bewildering number of ‘hits’ that may contain contradictory information. The key, though, is selecting the appropriate resource for the research that you are undertaking. For the purposes of building a glossary of terms, this is most likely to be whichever type of resource provides the most concise, intelligible, and trustworthy information.