Staying on top of the literature is a vital part of academia, but a part that can easily slip to the bottom of your to-do list and be neglected. Analyses, paperwork, meetings, preparing presentations and other proactive everyday tasks are frequently prioritised ahead of the more passive act of reading. Of course, when you are working on a research proposal, analysis plan, grant or writing a paper, reading suddenly becomes an integral part of an important and practical task.
Yet reading research papers is also important in and of itself and not just a means to an end. Regular reading can provide you with a range of perspectives on key issues, insight into what types of methods and statistical analyses are used in your area and ideas for interesting research questions that you might wish to address. It can be particularly motivating when you notice some incidental or unusual result that has no clear explanation but could lead to a potential research avenue. Discussion sections can sometimes also have intriguing suggestions for future research.
It is as important to have a good grasp of what has already been said and done in your topic area as it is to keep an eye out for new methods, ideas and results. What’s more, not only should you aim to become an expert in your specific research area, it seems that you should also have a firm understanding of where your topic fits into the larger body of literature. Friends have mentioned to me that PhD viva/thesis examiners tend to ask questions about how your work fits into the broader area of research.
Sometimes reading papers can feel a bit like “choose your own adventure”, where you end up chasing references and going off on tangents; an attempt to read one research article can thus lead to a highlighted mess of papers and dozens of open bookmarks in your browser. Trying to stay on top of the ever-expanding body of relevant literature can quickly get overwhelming.
When I first started my PhD, I had a long stretch of familiarising myself with the existing literature of my chosen topic. At the time, I was advised by an eminent visiting researcher that there was no need to read every single paper in my area of interest because, after a while, the papers (particularly the introductions and discussions) become quite repetitive. True enough, but my problem is, where do you draw the line?
There are several steps to becoming well-read in your area of interest. The first of these is identifying which papers it is actually useful to read. The best way to look for key papers in your area of interest is searching Google Scholar (or another database) and looking at the most cited papers or identifying a recent review of the literature. There are numerous ways of keeping an eye out for the brand-new literature that you should be reading. I have written about these before; they include reading relevant blogs, using Twitter, RSS feeds (e.g. Feedly) and services like PubCrawler (for medical research).
Finding the time to read papers can be the tricky part. I tend to always have a small pile of printed papers that I want to read next. These come in handy when our University computer network is down (which happens every now and again), I’m travelling somewhere by train, I’m in between things I’m working on or I want a break from what I’ve been working on. Other options include scheduling a regular time for paper-reading, such as Friday afternoon, or organising a journal club in your team, which will give you a deadline for reading chosen papers. It also helps not to read papers cover to cover. After a while, Introductions can mostly be skipped through and you probably want to focus most on the Results & Method, though a glance through the Discussion can also be fruitful.
The next vital step is organising your papers. This helps with being able to keep track of which ones you have read, finding the right one when you need it and also with referencing. I have my downloaded PDFs organised by first author and year, as well as labelled with key words. However, I have recently transferred my references to Mendeley (after finally declaring defeat in my ongoing battle with Endnote, perhaps the world’s most bug-filled and frustrating reference manager) and from my limited use of Mendeley, I can definitely recommend checking it out. The best things about it are that it’s free and available online, which makes working from multiple computers hassle-free. Google have also recently introduced Google Scholar library, which looks really easy to use.
Finally, a key part of being well-read is remembering what you have read. It can feel a little embarrassing when you download an interesting-looking paper only to find that you already have 2 copies of it, each with different highlights and notes. I tend to highlight important sections of papers on PDF versions or paper copies. I also have a Word document (now approaching 20,000 words) divided into topic sub-sections, where I write some notes and a quick summary and perhaps include a screenshot of a crucial figure, after reading a paper. Having these notes in one document makes searching for a specific study or keyword really quick and easy.
I tend to find that although I don’t often set aside a chunk of time to read papers, saving interesting-looking papers regularly and keeping my reading list organised helps me feel like I am not drowning in the literature. I’m very grateful to whoever came up with the concept of the academic abstract. Reading abstracts not only helps with getting an idea of whether you would benefit from reading the whole paper or not but is also a quick first glance at the paper itself. Even if you are pushed for time, reading abstracts can give you a pretty good overview of what sorts of things are out there to be read, making it seem a little more like you are on top of that mountain of literature.