How to Read Science Papers: An Update

I have been doing a lot of reading lately. A lot of reading. I’ve been scouring through the literature so I can have a solid foundation before/while I write my NSF fellowship  proposal for this year…the last year I can apply.  However, as I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed that my methods of going through my many, many piles of papers has changed since this time last year. Perhaps it’s because instead of reading just to read, I’m actually reading for information; to appear like less of a dumbass in my field. And because my methods have changed so much since the last time I wrote about this, I asked Tumblr if I wanted to see an updated version of this kind of post and I got an astounding:

screenshot_20160917-212515-02

So here we are…Again.

I shall note that the following tips are just what happens to work for me at this point in my academic career and I’m still modifying my methods as I go along (so stay tuned for next year?). This is probably a good reading technique if you’re just gathering background information, but may not necessarily work if you’re combing through methodology or doing anything more critical… Either way, I’m simply hoping that if anyone is struggling to read papers, this or last year’s post can at least provide good starting points in order to develop your own way of reading papers. Anyway, moving on!

Tip #1: Go in knowing what you need

Probably the newest tip I have in terms of reading science papers is have a plan. That is, know what information you want to gain out of reading these papers. Are you reading this for background information? Are you trying to come up with a new research idea and need to find gaps in the literature? Or are you trying to come up with methodology and need to know what researchers have done so far? Whatever it is, the type of information you need will end up determining which sections of the paper you focus on, which you skip and whether you skim or read a little more deeply than usual.

Right now, because I’m writing a fellowship proposal, I know that I need background information so I can write a kick ass introduction, as well as a good understanding of current unanswered questions in my field of study, so I can make sure I’m presenting a unique research idea. Therefore, as I’m reading my papers I know I need to focus on the introductions (for background) and the conclusions (where they discuss what they found and what they still could not answer). Or if, for instance, I needed to come up become familiar with a certain methodology, while I would probably still look at the introduction and conclusion, I would merely skim them and focus mostly on the methodology section. You get the point.

Tip #2: Determine if it’s worth your time

There are a lot of papers out there. Luckily, my field is somewhat small, so the amount of literature I need to shift through isn’t too unbearable. However, I have found that actually paying attention to the title and skimming the first few sentences of the abstract in whatever database you’re looking up papers (I personally use Web of Science) gives you a pretty good sense of if the paper contains the information what you need (see tip above). If it does, awesome. Download it, sort it in your reference manager and read away. If not, move on until you have a spare moment of time. (Haha! Free time? What’s that?)

Tip #3: Learn to skip around

Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, I honestly believe that the sections of science papers are not meant to be read in order. In fact, that might be one of the worst ways to read them, in my opinion. And honestly, there’s such a large amount of nitty-gritty information in there that you’ll most likely not need to know (at least for your first read through), so why bother wasting your time reading everything in order and with equal weight?

Again, as hinted at in Tip #1, know what you want to get out of the paper and focus on those sections. Most science papers the same general structure: an abstract followed by an Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion, and finally a Conclusion. This is what I do if I’m just reading for general information:

Skim the abstract: This is essentially just to figure out if the paper is important to my cause. Usually the first few sentences and maybe the last sentence are more than enough to determine this.

Onto the introduction: At this point in my career, I probably pay the most attention to the introduction, as this is how I gather the background information I need, as well as find out what other references I can look up afterward. I will note that after you read enough papers in your field, reading the introduction will turn from an in-depth read to a general skim because you’ll find that a lot of the papers usually start out in the same general way.

Skip to the conclusion: I usually skip to the conclusion next because I just like spoiling the ending I guess. I want to know what they found, why their research is important in a real world application and what questions are left to be answered. Sometimes a more in-depth version of the relevance of their research is found in a separate section, but most of the time it’ll be reiterated again in the conclusion anyway.

Look at the other headersSome papers will just have headers of “Results” or “Discussion” but some will have different headers or even subheaders that will specifically tell you what they want to address in that particular section. Pay close attention to these and determine which ones you deem important. If you’re not sure, I recommend reading the first or last sentence from each paragraph in the section. If the paper is well-written, that should usually give you the gist of what they’re trying to say.

90% of the time, skip the methodology: Because if you’re just reading for information, do you really care about the intricacies of their instrument or how they got their numbers. Maybe you are, but if anything I usually leave that until the second or third read through.

Don’t forget the figures: I always make sure to browse all the figures at least once either before I start reading or right after I finish. It gives a nice visual summary of what they were trying to present with their data and usually can give you the main point of the paper without you having to dive in too deep.

Tip #4: Remember to take notes while you read!

I wrote a little about my note-taking technique a few weeks ago in my Organizing my Grad School Life post. However, unless you’re just reading papers for fun (to which I ask you, why?!), I feel that there is almost no way that you’ll remember the details of all the papers you’ve managed to read. And that’s a problem. Because that means you’ll have to spend even more time re-reading the papers (more than you’ll probably have to, that is) whenever you need to reference their information. Therefore, it’s important to have someway to look back and very quickly figure out what the main points of a paper so you can move on and read other papers!

Personally, I like using a combination of highlighting a physical copy and taking notes on my laptop. All my notes are organized in a OneNote notebook titled “Reading Notes”. I have a page for each paper I read titled with the first author’s last name, the year and the journal acronym (i.e. Fisher (2016) ACP). All of these pages are group under specific section titles, depending if I’m reading them for a specific purpose, all of which you can see below:

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Typically, whatever gets written in here also gets highlighted in a physical copy. That way, if I don’t have my computer with me, I can still figure out what I thought was important at the time without having to re-read every single thing. I also have a notebook dedicated to taking notes if I don’t happen to be carrying my computer with me that day, but that ultimately gets retyped here as well. (Redundancy is what I do best, folks.)

If you’re more into annotating electronic copies of papers I’ve been recommended ReadCube and Mendeley before which are both reference managers and allow for annotations and highlighting of PDFs. I believe that EndNote (the reference manager I use) also has a feature for highlighting and annotating, but I don’t personally use that and it’s not free like the other two listed above. Or, if you just need another PDF reader other than Adobe, I recommend the Xodo PDF reader which I found easy to use on those rare occasions I do read on my tablet or phone.


Well, that’s all the tips I have for this year! Feel free to leave your personal tips for getting through papers (besides crying at the giant pile before you) down in the comment section below.

Also, if you want a variety of other advice posts on reading science papers, here are some of my favorites:

Hope this helped! Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

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3 thoughts on “How to Read Science Papers: An Update

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