Five ways to read broadly (and why you should)

Not my office.

We already know that among the uberskills of Academia, being a scholar ranks near the top. We need to be broadly read so we can make connections, talk to our colleagues, and teach. Furthermore, one of the fundamental ways to make a creative leap is to connect the tool of one discipline with the practice of another (more on this down the road). Finally, there is nothing quite so quaint as a first year grad student who is convinced that all he needs to do is master his little corner of the universe. Wait until his Orals.

That said, it gets harder and harder for new grad students to scale the impressive mountain of manuscripts due to the increasing number of journals, and ease of electronic access. It used to be (codger-alert!, insert whiney voice here) that the number of reprints you could read was limited to the hours you had to thumb through Biological abstracts (paper version) and the number of quarters you had in your pocket for xeroxing. Now the limit is set by the number of times you can hit return.

But read you must–its probably the most important time investment you can make in your first two years, and the ability to teach yourself is a key skill to develop. So, here’s what you do:

1) Subscribe to table of contents alerts. To be broadly read in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, for example, I would recomment the big three–Nature, Science, and PNAS–plus the journals that put a premimum on conceptual synthesis (American Naturalist and TREE) and/or risk taking (Ecology Letters). When the alert comes through, drag it into the “actions” folder of your email program. Once a week, plow through the TOCs.

2) Consider each paper as an investment that you bank. If you have spent time with a paper you have already made the decision that its potentially valuable. Moreover, the value of your reprint collection grows exponentially with its size because it grows with the number of connections you can make.

3) Minimize the number of times you touch a reprint. This is a general practice right out of GTD. The first time you invest in a manuscript you need to curate it: recording it in your bibliography program (like Endnote–the program everybody loves to hate). Your goal is to be able find it when you want it, along with all its associated notes. Nothing is more frustrating (and time wasting) than to find two copies of the same paper in the stacks around your desk, each with the same scribbled comments one year apart! Unless, of course, it’s not being able to find a paper that you know you’ve read.

4) Collect abstracts. One difference between reading for depth and reading for breadth is that there is no shame, absolutely no shame, in collecting interesting abstracts without reading the whole paper. Read them through once, and highlight the good bits in bold. Then save them in your bibliography program, or collect them in text documents. You’ve now banked a searchable reference of citation and abstract.

5) Rely on technology as your second brain. An advantage one has today over ten years ago, and one that will only increase in power with time, is the ability to search and make connections between text files. There is an explosion of such second brain software (PDF) that allows you to, say, search for other abstracts in your collection that are similar to one you just downloaded. These searching alogorithms are more and more sophisticated, trainable, and pretty darn uncanny. Say, for example, you are writing the introduction  to a paper that you aren’t quite satisfied with.  Copy the text into a search engine like DevonThink and tell it to find other similar chunks of text on your computer.  I can guarantee you will find notes and abstracts, only some that you might have made yourself if you had perfect recall and weren’t a frazzled proto-academic. Then you will see vistas of the future full of harp glissandos and the singing of meadowlarks.

And the broader you read, the more aha! moments will arise. Suddenly, the information explosion won’t look quite so ominous.

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10 Responses to Five ways to read broadly (and why you should)

  1. Great Post, and very helpful thanks! I’ve been trying out Devon Think for awhile and definitely like certain aspects of it – do you do all your writing and note-taking in it or just some of the times?

    Also do you have advice about finding the most interesting, reputable journals (that you can subscribe to their TOC) in a given field? I’ve never heard of being able to do such a thing, and it sounds like a great idea.

  2. Mike says:

    My Devon research notebook boots up with my computer. When a new journal TOC enters my inbox I skim it (if its one of the journals that *just* made my list, hoping there is nothing to read. Two minute rule. I can get rid of about 1/3 of the TOCs that way. If its a journal with more than one likely article of interest (for me, as an evolutionary ecologist, Ecology or Ecology letters), I drag it to my ACTION folder and deal with it that week. If its Science/Nature/PNAS, I often just deal with it right there. The precise steps I use are the subject of a future post. Thanks for the idea.

    Re journals, start with the Big 3: Science, Nature, and PNAS. After that, its totally field specific.

  3. Thanks for the tips. I am still learning how to use Devon Think in a way that helps me with my own research – but I like the idea of an action folder.

  4. Tom Schenk says:

    As for technology help, CiteULike is a social network-type website that permits you to index journal articles. It’s a good way to keep track of articles you read for a research project.

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