I feel the need…the need to read

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People need to spend more time reading the scientific literature. 

Reading the scientific literature has a lot in common with attending seminars. It’s not a chance to chill out for a while, or a way to occupy a coffee break – reading is a part of the job, and a vital one. It’s hard work too, especially if you’re not a native English-speaker. But it’s essential.

Scientific research occupies its own landscape. There are bustling communities full of activity and with sellers crying out their wares, there are frontier villages and hamlets only occupied by small and tight-knit collections of people; there are glittering castles and palaces situated atop mountains and equipped with all the riches that money can buy, and there are small lonely houses gradually sinking underwater, soon to be forgotten. Roads and bridges and railways connect these destinations, sometimes with fast and regular transit, other times almost impassable and overgrown. There’s all this here, and much more, and the landscape continues to expand.

Papers are your maps to this landscape. They tell you what’s being done in particular fields, how it’s being done, and (not insignificantly) where it’s being done. It is by reading papers that you – a traveller through this amazing world – can get your bearings, learn your craft, commune with distant minds, and discover where to find things. 

Reading will give you more ideas, boosting your creativity and helping to your foster own independence. It will inspire you, with certain papers striking a chord and rekindling once again that fire that was first lit in you some time ago. Being on top of the literature is empowering, because it lets you survey more of the scientific landscape instead of being corralled in some small paddock, possibly one that’s been staked out for you by your mentor.

A group in which a culture of reading is not instilled is one doomed to keep its junior members in a state of scientific adolescence. They need to be able to engage with the newest work in the field, see what techniques are coming through, what models are being favoured, and what others in the field are doing. 

An inability to keep on top of the literature has other, unintended consequences too. Publications are the lifeblood of research, and the currency that with which reputations are built. It is only by reading those publications that we are able to form our own assessments of the quality of others’ work. If you don’t read the primary literature yourself, then you will probably be forced to rely on lazy estimations of scientific value, such as the name of the journal, or dodgy and discredited metrics like the impact factor. 

In fact, it may partly be because people don’t take or don’t have the time to read that prestige publications develop their overinflated reputations. The more that people invest the time to be on top of the literature in their own fields, the more they will gain an appreciation of where the quality data are coming from, instead of what’s being hyped the loudest.

And as more science is produced, the need to keep on top of the literature will only grow. We could and to some extent already do outsource this to some cabal of professional readers who produce literature summaries (there is already a burgeoning online industry offering such services) but wholly delegating it would be undesireable given how important publications are to people’s reputations. You need to be able to form your own opinion about certain things.

So what should you do if you already struggle to manage to keep up with the literature? Well, one of the greatest insights that comes from using online learning tools such as Duolingo is how a small daily commitment can translate into an enormous monthly and yearly output. Set aside a fixed block of time every day for reading, say 30 min or so (that’s half of an antibody incubation in a lot of protocols). The more that you read, the better you will get at it, and the easier it will be to place papers in context. You’ll be saving yourself time in the long run too, because when it’s the moment to write up your thesis or your next paper you will already have a sense of what papers need citing and how to properly situate your findings within extant knowledge. 

If you can’t keep up (maybe you’re in an especially large and fast-moving community) then you just need to specialise instead of giving up. Focus on a narrower area that you can cover. As in the arts, when the volume of material becomes sufficient to overwhelm the largest intellect, then the solution is specialisation. You have enough intellectual capacity to hold the work of an area, and if the field has advanced sufficiently that there are many people involved and very fine-grained resolution, you will still be able to absorb the information required to operate in any given sub-community. 

Don’t be discouraged – every PDF you get through is a result, and each one is a step forward in your development as both a research scientist and an intellectual. Enjoy it. 

 

If you need some pointers, I’ve written a couple of “How to” guides that might be useful:
“Check the technique”, a guide to the critical reading of scientific papers, can be found HERE.
“Bookworms” has a few tips on how to stay on top of the scientific literature and can be found HERE.

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