How much is enough? On climbing the reprint pile

paper-stack.jpgClass the other night was led by a top comparative physiologist. As it wound down (due to low glucose levels, or perhaps a high titer of corticosteroids…maybe both?) I asked her “How do you find time to read?”.

She frowned, and said “I don’t find enough. And it’s frustrating.”

Over the next few minutes she nuanced this a bit, acknowledging that 1) we all have different roles to play in our lives, and only so much time, and 2) by definition, scientists are infinitely curious, the literature is vast, and so frustration is not a bug, as our techie friends would say, but a feature. Our impatience with the literature signals why we are scientists.

I scribbled down that little nugget, thinking about what I’d write today, generating a pleasing little dribble of epinephrine in the process. Just then, another member of the class spoke up. “How much is enough?” she said. “My major advisor says read ten papers a day! Ten papers! Every day!”

My adrenals belched out another aliquot, I scribbled again. “How much reading is enough?”.

As we discussed last post, perhaps the most important job in year 1 of grad school is to read. You spend hours a day reading. As our comparative physiologist pointed out, if you don’t feel so driven–that is, if your curiosity doesn’t send you to the literature and the world of ideas–this may not be the field for you.

But it’s completely understandable that you feel frustrated. Remember that guy in the Karate Kid who kept on trying to balance on one foot and kept falling down? No? Well, take it from me. He was frustrated. But a strange thing happened. The more he practiced, the better he got. Same goes for reading. You do get better at picking up the important bits and skipping the unimportant bits. You become a more effective reader the more literature you read. But it is slow going at first.

So the first step in finding “How much is enough?” is to grok that scientists read the literature in different ways, corresponding to three differing motivations and states. This translates into differing tactics, varying the sequence and intensity with which they read the different parts of a scientific paper. Before you go on, this might be a good time to “Five ways to read broadly“. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Now, let’s review the three ways of reading a scientific paper, and then we’ll return to the subject of “How much is enough?”.

1 Reading for Breadth. You all subscribe to email alerts for PNAS, Science, and Nature. The Big 3. This is where a large fraction of the sexy stuff in science comes out. Much of it is cutting edge. Everybody reads the Big 3 to maintain scientific literacy and to anticipate where the frontier in their field resides (frontier=grant money). And since the coverage is broad, everybody encounters stuff way outside their field. So we all Read for Breadth to discover new questions and new approaches in disciplines so far afield that you have to cross campus to find someone who works on that stuff.

The thing is, when you are new graduate student you find that a disconcerting amount of the stuff you read is, by default, Reading for Breadth. Much of it involves becoming moderately conversant in the work of your committee members. It’s not just the Big 3, its the stuff that’s coming out in your chosen field’s leading journals.

The practice of Reading for Breadth goes like this. You start with the Title, then proceed through the Abstract, Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion. You occasionally skip to the references. You read the article straight through, taking notes and underlining as you go. (BTW: this is why you spend so much time writing Introductions and Discussions. You are framing arguments for the fraction of your audience that is Reading for Breadth.)

Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts. One is to read in front of your computer (or on your computer). As new vocabulary is the single biggest problem when exploring a new discipline, if you read in front of the computer, you can Google any unknown terminology. Another shortcut is to ask for reading lists from your committee members (“What are 5 indispensible papers in your field right now?”). Then take those lists and plow through the content with a few colleagues. Reading groups are effective ways of making sure you, well, read.

2 Reading for Gist. Most everyone I know now subscribes to the emailed Tables of Contents for their journals of choice. (Tip: unless you are really anal, don’t subscribe to a journal’s “online first” alerts. They triple your email, and you will find these papers in about a month anyway). This useful habit means you will find yourself periodically (snik) reading lists of titles. From that list of titles you will select papers that seem interesting, and read their abstracts. This counts as reading, folks, even if you don’t finish the entire paper. If it’s important, you save the pdf to a reference file and add the citation to your bibliography program. It is now available for your second brain software. Reading for Gist gives you immediate gratification (lots of ideas) and also counts as a long-term investment in your reprint collection.

3 Reading for your Speciality. After doing 1 and 2 for a while, you will find yourself mastering a corner of the literature, one that you want to add to. Then, while Reading for Gist you come across a potentially important paper in your field. Funny thing, though, if you’re like me, you don’t want to wade through the Introduction–you know most of that stuff anyway. Instead, you skip to the end of the Intro to see how the author outlines her hypotheses. Then you skim the Methods to see how she did it, noting any new techniques or sloppy design that catches your eye. Then it’s on to the Results, more specifically the Tables and Figures, to see the data with your own eyes. Then the Acknowledgements, to see who contributed behind the scenes (Discussions are typically only really interesting reads if the Results turn out screwy.). In the end, these are the articles you will have ready in your short term memory; these are the articles that will find their way as citations into your papers. But an article read for your Speciality will takes a fraction of the time of one read for Breadth because, well, you know this stuff.

So as you develop into a scholar, you will find the proportion of reading time you invest in Breadth will decline to maintenance levels (until the day you decide to switch fields), the time you invest in Gist will remain about constant (this is your “keeping up with the literature” time) and the time you read for Speciality will increase and be focused around particular projects, manuscripts, and grant proposals.

So, how much reading is enough?

Ten papers/day isn’t a bad goal to shoot for in your first year. For 2 or 3 papers, Read for Breadth. Then collect 7 or 8 more from some combination of electronic Table of Contents and literature searches (Google Scholar is an awesome way to Read for Gist).

Then saunter into your advisor’s office and ask if she’s read anything interesting today. And be prepared, upon receiving a blank stare, to talk about this cool paper you read just this morning.


7 Responses to How much is enough? On climbing the reprint pile

  1. Matt says:

    Great, thanks Mike.

  2. Rue says:

    Great advice. I’ve become the queen of reading abstracts these days and have found that, until I’m writing and need to reference the articles, that is often sufficient to get me thinking.

  3. Kate says:

    Wow. You have good advice here that I was asking people around about a few weeks ago, and you have them written out clearly. I’m glad that I’ve found your site. Thanks.

  4. […] Getting Things Done In Academia – How much is enough?  Climbing the reprint pile [”How do you find time to read?”] […]

  5. ArtemEasy says:

    This is one of my fave entries so far. I wonder what you’d think of this add-on for Firefox ( which snags all the pdfs on a single webpage in a matter of seconds. Great for grabbing entire issues of journals, or from a researcher’s website. And with ISI, corresponding citation info is easy to get. Now a reprint collection can grow MUCH faster than it can be read. My question is: is this a blessing or curse?

  6. […] is where your reading comes in. The more you read and the more you dissect papers in study groups, the more you will […]

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