Summer Reading

The long days of summer conjure images of corn on the cob, swimming, playing outside into the evening, and summer reading. Nothing like sitting in the shade of a big tree and pulling out a stack of scientific papers to read!

Two different people asked me this week how I read scientific papers. I gave a straight answer although I wanted to try to be funny. “I don’t read scientific papers anymore: I do administration now” is what I wanted to say.  Truth is, I don’t read scientific papers anymore: I sample them. I stick to the results (first) and methods (second). I look directly for the information I need and move on. If the figures, tables, and methods aren’t clear, I will learn nothing because I rarely read the analysis until after I am sure what I think the data mean. If the work is directly in my field, the introductory material is often information I know well, so I skim it really quickly if I look at it at all.

However, there are a number of authors whose papers I always read start to finish. These are papers that either are directly relevant to my research area or manuscripts from authors who write so very well that I am compelled to read their work to help me improve my own writing. We have a number of notable authors like that in our department. Because you can learn to write well by reading good authors, we recommend that students read entire papers, especially those you cite.

Liking to have my funny bone tickled, here is a recent satisfying take on how to read a scientific paper.

There are a number of guides on the net for reading scientific papers. Some are promoted by scientific publishing companies. I like this one from a Rice University research class. There is even on article circulating the web for non-scientists that beginning scientists would find useful. Here is one that I developed for CSUMB (EvaluatingAnArticleWorksheet). For me a well written scientific paper will bring up more questions than it will answer. These may not be questions the author is asking but the questions it stimulates in my own head directly related to my own research. Many of the guides to reading scientific papers talk about developing questions.

I generally read papers around one theme that I want to research or write about. For example, I might need to know about the survival of my favorite bacterial pathogen. I try to read as much as I can about experiments that have evaluated survival of the organism under different conditions. I might make a table of methods and findings. Then I try to summarize the state of knowledge and what gaps there are in relation to my research questions. Having a goal of summarizing knowledge in one small area gives me a purpose for reading the papers and helps me remember who did what and how well.

Your approach is probably less important than the fact that you actually read papers. How many do you read in a year? Do you read one a day (365), one a week (52), one a month (12), one a quarter (4). Hopefully, we are all reading a several a week. I wonder if we could set up a manuscript reading goal thermometer like those used for fundraising? How fast would we as a department get to 1000 manuscripts read (and would we need to read the entire manuscript for it to count)?

Today in addition to writing the annual report, I will be reading research related to bacterial diseases of beet and chard. What are you reading? Post something on social media to let us know #PPEMreads.

Enjoy your reading,