Reading the literature and writing

April 20, 2020

Well respected addiction neuroscientist Nick Gilpin posted a twitter poll asking people about their favorite part of doing science.

Only 4% of the respondents voted for “Reading the literature”. Now look, it’s just a dumb little twitter poll and it was a forced choice about a person’s favorite. Maybe reading is a super close second place for everyone who responded with something else as their first choice, I don’t know.

However. Experience in this field, reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals, reading manuscripts published in journals, fielding comments from reviewers about our manuscripts and trying to help trainees learn to write a scientific manuscript suggests to me that it is more than this.

I think a lot of scientists really don’t like to read deeply into the literature. At best, perhaps they weren’t ever trained to read deeply.

As a mentor, I tip toe around this issue a lot more than I should. I think, I guess, that it would be sort of insulting to ask a postdoc if they even know how to read deeply into a literature for the purposes of writing up scientific results. So I take the hint approach. I take the personal example approach. Even my direct instruction is a little indirect.

The personal example approach has a clear failure point. The hint may suffer from that somewhat as well. The direct statements of instruction that I do manage to give “Hey, we need to look into this set of issues so we know what to write” is only slightly better. The failure point I am talking about is that part of reading deeply into the literature is a triage process.

The triage process is one of elimination. Of looking at a paper that might, from the title or eve the Abstract, be relevant. In the vast majority of cases you are going to quickly figure out that it is not something that contributes to the knowledge under discussion in this particular paper. To me this is under the heading of reading the literature. It doesn’t mean you read every paper word for word, at all. Maybe this is part of the problem for some people? That they think it really means read every frigging search result from start to finish? I can see how that would be daunting.

But it IS work. It takes many hours, at times, of searching through PubMed, Google Scholar or Web of Science using several variant key word searches. Of then scanning papers as needed to see if they have relevant information. Sometimes you can triage based on the abstract. Sure. But a lot of the time you have to download the paper and take look through it. Sometimes, you are just checking for a detail that didn’t make it into the abstract and finding that, nope, the paper isn’t relevant. But sometimes it is and you have to read it. But then, maybe it would be a good idea to look at the citations and follow the threads to additional papers. Maybe you should use Web of Science to find out what subsequent papers cited that particular paper. All of this work to come up with three or two or even one sentence with three surviving citations.

The person who is following my writing by example doesn’t necessarily see this. They may think I just pulled three cites at random and kept on going. They may think that somehow it is my vast experience that has all of this literature in my head all at the same time. Despite me saying more or less the above as reminders. When I say things like “hey, everybody works differently, but when I do a PubMed search on a topic, I like to start with the oldest citations and work forward from there”, I mean this as a hint that they should actually do PubMed searches on topic terms.

(I admit in early graduate school I was really intimidated by the perception that the Professors did have encyclopedic knowledge of everything, all of the time. I don’t think that any more. I mean, yes, my colleagues over the years clearly vary and some are incredibly good at knowing the literature. But some are just highly specific in their knowledge and if you get too far outside they flounder. Some know lots of key papers, sure, but if you REALLY are digging in deeply, you figure out they don’t know everything. Not the way a grad student on dissertation defense day should.)

So I’m not talking about reading the literature in a “keep up with the latest TOCs for all the relevant journals” kind of way. I’m talking about focused reading when you want to answer a question for yourself and to put it into some sort of scholarly setting, like a Discussion.

I have no recollection of being taught to read a literature. I just sort of DID that as a graduate student. I was in the kind of lab where you were expected to really develop your own ideas almost from whole cloth, rather than fitting into an existing program of work. Some of my fellow grad students were in labs more like mine, some were in labs where they fit into existing programs. So it wasn’t the grad program itself, just an accident of the training lab. Still, it wasn’t as though I chatted much with my fellow students about something like this so I have no idea how they were trained to read the literature. I have no recollection of how much time anyone spent in the library (oh yes, children, this was before ready access to PDFs from your desktop) compared with me.

So about this poll that Professor Gilpin put up. How about you, Dear Reader? How do you feel about reading the literature? Were you taught how to do it? Especially as it pertains to writing papers that reference said literature (as opposed to reading to guide your experiments in the first place, another topic for another day). Have you tried to explicitly train your mentees to do so or do they just pick it up? Is it always the case that reviewers of your manuscripts hand wavily suggest you have overlooked some key literature and they are right? or is it the case that you know all about what they mean and have triaged it as not relevant? Or you know that what they think “surely must exist” really doesn’t?

6 Responses to “Reading the literature and writing”

  1. Janielle Richards Says:

    This puts things into perspective; my professor has encouraged us to do focused reading where we are trying to answer key questions about a topic. We then present our findings at group meetings twice a week.

    For me, reading is exhausting because I still struggle to answer why they use this methodology to answer this specific question and stats and whatever..

    But I have come to realize that I am better able to capture some things quicker than before so it is a skill as she said…

    Anyway.. I need 30 mins rest before tackling a next paper…sigh


  2. AcademicLurker Says:

    Do journal clubs count as “teaching how to read the literature”? I was never taught in any formal sense, but we did have journal clubs in grad school. Interestingly, I think the most helpful one was the most informal one that was self-organized by the students.

    I’m a bit surprised by the poll result since for me reading the literature s one of the *most* enjoyable parts of doing science.

    Glad to see you’ve returned to blogging (at least for now).


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    AL- My experience with journal clubs is that they tend to focus deeply on “reading” one paper. or maybe contrast two or three recent papers at best. This is necessary but I think it gets in the way of the kind of reading I am talking about in this post. If graduate students are trained to think that whenever someone hints they should be reading the literature deeply, they think of the kind of per-paper effort required for a journal club. That sounds like a lot of work going through even 5 pages of search engine returns. We need to train triage reading.

    JR- yeah, it gets better with practice, for sure. and as you are noticing, it is *work*. I am not trying to pretend it doesn’t take time, mental energy, etc. It does.


  4. Chris Says:

    As a science librarian at a research university, I’m curious how common it is now for a researcher to actually use several databases, and take time to hone keywords. I know from talking to grad students that it isn’t something that they did in their undergrad. And knowing how to churn through the hundreds of results without having to look at each and every one is another skill. And being somewhat sure you’re done with that bit for now. Teaching how to read the literature is a key skill, but so is finding the literature (as you described). How do you teach that part for your students? What do you say?


  5. jade Says:

    I really like reading literature, but I like writing more. (recognizing that they go hand-in-hand).

    I learned how to read literature, the way you describe, mostly by teaching myself.

    This is probably pretty common: I have bounced from postdoc to postdoc and have had multiple projects therein. The projects shared a common theme, but they all tackled different topics and questions. As such, I have had to read tons of literature for each project, just to catch up to the lab’s knowledge base. Many times, this has occurred with little input/suggestions from the expert (i.e. PI) until the project was near its end (2nd or 3rd draft of manuscript). At the part in the process, I tried to make sure that I captured correctly the background on the subject and how the discussion should fit. Luckily, I like reading literature else, each time this would have been difficult as I was not explicitly trained. I have also become better at “diagonal reading” — as my spouse calls it.

    I am currently unemployed, so I do not have any mentees. I would like to think that given my personal experience, I would explicitly train them.

    There have been two occasions that I remember where a reviewer suggested adding references. I never got the impression that I overlooked important literature. They mostly just provided suggestions for helping to bolster the statement or section, or an older/newer reference I missed. Yes…they were right, but the paper could have proceeded fine without the addition (it has occurred when the reviewer is asking me to cite more of their work, too).


  6. Morgan Price Says:

    Most of the time I like digging in the literature to solve a puzzle. Or even to find a reference to add to random speculative sentence in the Discussion. I agree with DM that it’s not explicitly taught.


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