Friday, January 27, 2006

how do I read?

As I settle into the final phase of my graduate training, one of the biggest outstanding issues for me, is one that I think I should have mastered years ago. My challenge is to figure out how to effectively and efficiently read the literature.

When I sit down to read a journal article, it goes one of three ways. The most common way is that I attempt to read at my desk and I manage to continuously distract myself by checking email or bloglines, adding papers in Endnote, aimlessly surfing the web, or finding some non-pressing work to do instead. When I work this way it often takes me a good chunk of a day to get through an article (averaging 15-20 pages).

Realizing that read at my desk is a time-suck, my second alternative is to read at home in the evenings and weekends. Reading at home generally involves making myself some tea, getting comfy on the couch, reading about 2 pages and then taking a nap. Again, a horribly inefficient way to peruse the scientific literature.

My third option is to go to a coffee shop near campus, order a Chai and work on the paper and the tea at the same time. Generally this is the most time-efficient way for me to read (~1 hour per paper), but it has some significant drawbacks. Namely, there are always other things to read at the coffee shops (flyers, newspapers) and conversations to overhear. Plus, I have to spend money and intake non-nutritious calories.

It's not that I don't find the articles interesting and useful, but they are dense, often poorly written, and generally without that broad narrative arc that draws me so intensely into fiction. Given that I have an ever-growing stack of papers to keep up with for my thesis, for my various seminars, and for generally staying current on interesting topics and my field, I could really use some help in finding a more efficient and effective way to read.

Does anyone else have this problem? How do you cope with it? What are your effective and efficient strategies for reading? Help!!!!


she falters to rise said...

I do the coffee shop thing. I also take notes in a pretty, shiny notebook as I read to make it interactive. I sometimes draw flow charts of the paper's hypotheses, experiments, results, etc. so that I don't have to solely rely on words, which are boring.

Jane said...

A trick my advisor taught me is to read the intro and the conclusions, and most of the time you can just skim the rest, only closely reading what's most relevant to your own work. In other words, only read enough so that you can understand the gist of the paper--this is sufficient for most papers--and reserve your "deep reading" for only the most relevant papers.

yami mcmoots said...

I've also been taught to read just the intro, conclusions, and figures/figure captions.

The weather in Berkeley is usually nice enough to read outside, but not quite warm enough to want to fall asleep, so I often bring articles to the balcony if I really must read the boring bits. Usually by that point I'm trying to make the article fit in my *own* broad narrative arc, so it's easier to pay attention.

Dr J. said...

I also start with intro and conclusions. If it´s something like long and complex pathways and interations then I do lots of flowcharts on the back of the printout. Then the discussion/results in a more skimn fashion and refering between the two as I go rather than one after the other. Then I write big questions in red down the page like "Can I believe this gel?" or "What about this band" or "This step makes no sense". Then I try and answer those by reading it a bit more deeply. Then I get bored, forget the names of the authors if I even noticed them in the first place and go and find a review instead.

DocBushwell said...

Count me in as another who seeks distraction when confronted by a pile of journal articles. Sadly, this has been my lot since I defended my doctoral thesis twenty years ago...actually twenty years ago this month! I'm less efficient than I wish, or maybe just not self-disciplined. So, FWIW, here's my strategy: I read the abstract first, then hone in on the figures and tables. If these are clear enough to "tell the story," at least in part, then I can assess the discussion and conclusion more objectively, i.e., do the data really support the paper's hypothesis and conclusion. If not, I give the paper a cursory scan at best and move on to the next.

That said, today I'll likely find a good excuse, like taking off with my 14 year old daughter in search of sushi, to avoid reading a stack of papers which I hauled home for my weekend reading pleasure.

Good luck with the thesis. Even twenty years out, my memories of the experience remain in sharp focus.

- Doc Bushwell

phd me said...

I'm an intro/conclusion reader, too. Then, if I decide the article's worth the effort, I sit down at kitchen table with a pencil and notate my way through.

One approach that works for me is treating articles as breaks from longer projects. When I was writing papers for class, or now that I'm working on the D, when I need a break, I sit down and read one of the articles in my ever-growing pile. Sometimes I read during my lunch break or while I'm fixing dinner. I only read one at a time, so it really does make the effort feel like a nice diversion from the routine.

GrrlScientist said...

i also use the intro/conclusions strategy, and look at the figures. if the paper is in my field, if it is well-written or if it tells an interesting story that i can "translate" for my blog readers, well, then i practically commit every sentence to memory.


Chemgrad said...

the best way to deal with it is to read the abstract and glance through the results and discussion pharagraph.All that is important in papers is to notice any novel way, any ground breaking results and interpretation of data.This is my 4th year in chem grad school and it does help.

Emily said...

My paper-reading strategy is a compromise between the endlessly distracted reading at my desk and the expensive, caloric coffee shop -- I go to the lounge in my department, where the threat of passing faculty members keeps me awake, the lack of a computer helps me keep focused, and the (bad) coffee and decent tea are free. :)

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