SciCurious has a post up today, rambling on about some apparent bugaboo of the trainee set. There’s a survey and everything so go read it.

What I take away from this is that there is some aspect within the culture of science in which there are some bragging rights to be obtained on the basis of how many papers you read. “Read“.

This is asinine.

Some commenter named ‘brian’ irritated me with:

I disagree with these definitions of reading. An abstract and figures are in no way reading a paper. To truly grasp what authors are trying to say you need to have a working knowledge of the entire article, intros and discussions are critical since bad assumptions and wrong interpretations are the most likely errors in any paper. Abstract and figures and a quick skim of the discussion are a cop out way of upping your read list.

This comment seems to personify that subject which is SciCurious original motivation. People in science who are really, really focused on how many articles they read and the nature of the “reading” of such articles.


Science is about apprehending what has and has not been demonstrated on a particular subject. About understanding what has been supported by evidence, what may be provisionally inferred and what has been provisionally (or repeatedly) rejected. As a practicing scientist, this understanding permits us to design better or more interesting experiments, make better or more interesting interpretations of our data and set better or more interesting provisional inferences. There is no score card for “how many papers I have read”. There is only a scorecard for how great your science chops are.

It therefore follows that the nature of reading a scientific paper may vary tremendously in the service of the real goal. The nature of this reading may not be the same across different scientists (who are interested in different things) or even within scientist across time. Some details in a paper may be irrelevant to one person, but highly pertinent to another. Details of methodology (who gives a crap what kind of rat they used…a rat’s a rat….until I happen to be interested in a strain difference, that is) or of outcome (quarter-log, half-log shift in the dose-response function, who cares? we’ll just up the starting point for the clinical, titrated dose.) and especially of the interpretation (dude, I don’t care one bit whether this drug is likely to be abused recreationally, it’s just a good probe for the endogenous system…) will vary.

For the trainees, I sympathize.

I understand, I think, how you come to this misunderstanding of paper count as a measure in and of itself of scientific acumen. It is because over the course of a scientist’s lifetime, she reads a hella lot of papers and draws together a hella lot of stories. So for the noob(ier) scientists, the scope of understanding of the most impressive and vigorous scientists seems a little daunting. Intimidating. Because you are looking at what seems an unbounded ability to reel off citations of relevant papers in the service of some point the Big Swinging type is making. But this is natural accumulation. It builds up over time.

And here’s a little hint. The brilliant types with seemingly unbounded ability to reel off citations don’t “read” all the literature in the way brian, above, would have it either. They read in a variable fashion.

Sometimes it is just a glance at Figure 2. Sometimes it is the deepest of deep readings and pondering the paper over several days that is required. Sometimes it is a series of re-reads over months or years. Always, in service of the real goal which is to understand how the data presented in a paper fit into a scientific story that is of interest.

Never in service of bragging to one’s peers about how many papers one has “read’ this month.

I mean Jesus, do you even listen to yourselves? Doesn’t that sound insane?

There is another reason for the quick glance-at-the-Figures level of reading which trainees find incomprehensible because it is so damn insulting. I really don’t care what you think about your data. I care what I think about your data.

This is a horrible realization for trainees that spend many, many long hours crafting their rationale and interpretation in the Discussion section. Who have also spent many long hours arguing with their PI and lab mates (and peer reviewers) about the design of studies, which ones will create the story, what can be included in a manuscript, etc. You have sweated bullets over this! And all the reader wants is to see the Figure? AAAAAaaaaaauuuggggghh!

Yeah, you need to get over that.