The reading ritual

“I am definitely reading enough!” – said no doctoral student ever.

The overwhelming majority of us feel like we never take the time to read scientific literature.

The problem is that reading doesn’t produce any data – we can’t show it to our boss or use it in a talk. Moreover, while the rare paper is truly exciting to read, the majority are as interesting as watching paint dry.

Nonetheless, reading is an immensely important part of PhD work since it’s instrumental in inspiring new ideas. PhD students need to read to get an overview of a topic, to find out if a certain question has been addressed, or for troubleshooting methodology. While these tasks could be managed with occasional ‘bulk’ reading, staying up-to-date and knowledgeable about the progress in your field of research requires reading on a regular basis.

The reading routine I’ve developed over the last four years of my PhD relies both on surveillance of the publishing scene and interrogation of carefully selected suspects of interest. Here are some guidelines that help me to read regularly, purposefully and efficiently:

Which types of papers to read?

I read three types of papers regularly:

  1. Papers reporting a major discovery in my general field of research (neuroscience). These types of papers help to see the bigger picture, as well as give a general impression of the types of questions that are currently being asked and the most prominent techniques being used.
  2. Papers reporting important findings in my specific field of research (connectivity of cortical neurons). By reading these papers I can link my own data to what other researches are currently reporting and then reconsider or adapt my experiments accordingly. This could prevent me from wasting precious time on dead ends or collecting data that might already be outdated by the time it’s ready for publication.
  3. Papers reporting advances in the methods I use (viral tracing). By reading these types of papers I can assess whether my methods are state of the art. Using an outdated technique might lead reviewers to question the results.

Surveillance: Stay up to date with the current literature

To stay up to date with the literature, I use the RSS feed function on PubMed (for this you need to create a PubMed account, if you don’t already have one). You can find a short explanation of how to set up the RSS feeds here.

This function allows you to specify keywords, topics, authors etc. that PubMed automatically searches for at a specified interval and sends the links to the papers directly to your email. You can specify how often you want these emails sent and how many papers they contain. I set mine to get 12 articles from six categories on a weekly basis.

If you’re also interested in staying up-to-date with general advances in the scientific community, you could subscribe to the highest impact journals like Nature and Science to receive their table of contents by mail on a weekly basis.

Interrogation: Don’t read every paper and learn to skim

Once I find a paper which is potentially relevant, I first evaluate whether or not it is worth reading. I spend a maximum of five minutes reading the abstract and looking over the main figures to get an idea of the design of the study and its outcomes.

After this brief look-over, I sort the paper into one of three categories:

  1. Irrelevant → I dismiss it and turn to the next paper
  2. The main ideas are relevant for me →  I read just enough to extract the main message and summarize it in a short paragraph. Usually I skip the methods part and focus on the figures and the discussion. I note down the summary directly in my citation manager (I use Mendeley).
  3. Totally relevant for me →  I read the paper meticulously and use maximal brain power. I read the paper from first to last word and try to understand every sentence and every figure. Sometimes, I even read associated papers just to get an even better understanding. This takes a lot of time and effort. Therefore, I never read after doing an experiment but reserve entire days just for reading.  

Learn to read critically

Whether you’re just extracting the main message or reading the entire paper thoroughly, it’s important to approach a paper with a critical mindset. Especially during the early years of our research careers, we’re inclined to believe everything the authors tell us, when in reality, just because something is published that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. Reading papers critically also helps us develop a critical and analytical mindset for approaching our own research.

These are some questions I use to anchor my own criticism:

  • Is the method suited to answer the research question?
  • Does the method have any weak spots?
  • Do the figures match the text? Do the figures support the authors’ claims?
  • Are there any holes in the authors’ story? If so, why might they have left them open?
  • Are the authors’ conclusions justified based on the results they present?
  • Does the paper cite the relevant and most recent studies?

Relate the paper to your own research

The most important question I ask when I read a paper is: How do the results fit in with my own data?

I personally like to translate this question into figures: Do I need to update my own figures based on these results? Do I need to change any schemes in my introduction/discussion or in presentations about my research project?

This way, I have a well-defined starting point for linking my own research to the recent discoveries.  

Reading is a lot like a dentist appointment – you know you should do it (and regularly), but you keep putting it off. You push it a week, maybe two – but if you wait too long, you’ll end up with a very uncomfortable problem.

Don’t let your PhD get caries – go to the journals regularly. A row of bright, shiny ideas will be your reward!

Georg Hafner

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG)

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