Sometimes a simple question on Twitter can be a good source of inspiration for a post. Especially when you have an answer that really works for you. Today, this happened to be the case when Flor Yannelli asked Twitter for advice in the below tweet. Thanks Flor. I’m glad you asked!
I have indicated in the past that I struggle with reading myself, given my personal circumstances. That is, being the father of a young kiddo, I struggle somewhat lately to read, and especially, to read books. The problems are greatest with fiction. With non-fiction I can read a small passage and put the book down when I need to play with Duplo or puzzles. However, it is a bit different with fiction, where I fully immerse myself in the story, and each interruption breaks my lovely little bubble. Indeed, I have not read much fiction in the past two years (but read non-fiction almost every day, even just for a couple of minutes sometimes).
Now the above question pertains to the reading of scientific papers. I don’t really struggle with reading those. Why not? Because I only read them with purpose, and usually not for fun. As such, I optimized the process to be efficient. How do I keep up with reading all the cool papers in the field? Here’s my more elaborate answer to that question.
1) Set the highest standards for what you find cool. This may sound a bit silly. Sure, I am very broadly interested in ecology, and I work in projects involving soil-plant, plant-insect, plant-microbe, urban, and climate change ecology. There is a lot of stuff being published on all these things on a daily basis. Some of it may be ‘cool’, but probably a higher proportion is ‘alright’, and the majority of it is ‘meh’ and irrelevant. If I have no time, I will not read anything that is not relevant, and skip most of the alright work. You would need to have a pretty catchy title to make me think that it is cool. Create a super strong filter!
2) Don’t read papers. Wait, what? Another silly one, maybe. What I mean to say is that once a title has caught my attention, I rarely read a paper in full. I read very, VERY small pieces of papers and I am very quick in finding the specific info I need. This takes training, but I think this skill is worthy of polishing. Check the figures, or these days a graphical abstract. A couple of seconds is all you need for that. If you know where to find aspects that you need, most of the paper is just clutter. You don’t need to read 8000 words to find a two-sentence method. You don’t need to read the full paper to know how the authors interpreted their findings. You don’t need to read at all to look at graphs. If the graphs are a mess, the paper is probably not even that cool. (I have written many uncool papers, it also happens)
3) Don’t make a to-read list. Fuck to-read lists. They only exist to make you feel worthless. You will never read them. You might as well get rid of it, and as a result you won’t feel shit for it.
4) Create more time to read. This might sound obvious. But really. You don’t have to check emails, Slack, Whatsapp or whatever all the time. During work hours I rarely touch my phone, I have started to limit Slack for my team to specific slots in the week, and I have turned off all of my email notifications. If I do, I generally only look at Twitter (or any social media) before work, around lunch time, or after work. Only rarely do I do so during work times, and when, it is often only to post a work-related tweet on our department Twitter account. Mindless scrolling through Twitter is also reading, and you could use that time for reading other things. I bet that it would easily free up an hour per week for most people. That means time for 10 quick paper scans. Or maybe two more detailed reads, if that’s your thing.
5) Read what you need. Specifically, when writing, I often have the story in my mind, and a good feeling for patterns in the literature. To support statements in intro and discussion, you probably know quite well what the most important trends are in your field. You’re the expert at what you do! What works for me is to write without references and highlight aspects that need double-checking. I do that shit at the end of the writing process, and then read targeted. If I read while writing and write while reading, well, let’s call that multi-tasking… and NO you’re not good at that. EVERYBODY sucks at multitasking. It only makes two processes less efficient (and I think less enjoyable). Write with what you know, then polish with what you need to know more.
I guess that’s about it. I have used and optimized this method all the time over the past seven years, and it has worked well for me*. I feel like I’m pretty well-aware of what is happening in the field, and the to-read list counts zero!
*I should note that I make a hard distinction between reading and reviewing. That is, reviewing the literature to write a literature review, or peer-reviewing a manuscript. The former requires including all the relevant literature (and not just the cool). However, quick-scans can still be useful there. The only (not my own) works that – without exception – I always read in full (at least twice) and with full attention, are the manuscripts I review. I think review reports need a holistic assessment and I don’t know more efficient ways to review, and I think that is for the best.