A golden rule for reading scientific literature

Reading for a PhD

Archibald was reading the famous paper The Silence of the Bluebirds, in hopes of finding interesting information for his thesis. There he found a great reference, a book called Bluebirds and Redbirds: The Never Ending Fight. He started to read that book and came across an essential sounding reference, Bluebirds: From the Origins to the Present Day.

Now he was hoping to eventually find decisive content for his research, but he realized that he couldn’t understand that text without first reading Yellowbird and Yellowfish: A Constant Struggle for Life. So he started to read that paper, and again he came across a new reference.

By the end of the day, Archibald had started to read ten papers and two books, had not finished any, and had not even understood the point of one of those texts. He felt exhausted, frustrated, and unmotivated. He started to doubt that he would ever manage to read the scientific literature he needed for his thesis.

Set reading goals

In order not to lose yourself while reading texts which might be exciting but unrelated to your topic, it is crucial you set reading goals. Before reading a text, ask yourself: Why do I want to read this text? Find a concrete reason – not just: I want to know more about Redbirds. What exactly do you want to know about Redbirds? What will you do with this information once you find it?

Setting reading goals also prevents unnecessary readings. If, while reading, you notice that a given text does not fit with your goal – even if it is an exciting text – put it away and look for another one which will help you reach your goal.

If you belong to the group of people who forgets their goal while reading, first write your goal on a piece of paper and pin it up in front of you; then, set an alarm clock which will ring every 10 minutes. When it rings, look at your goal and  make sure  you are still pursuing it.

One tip: set clear goals. For this you can use the technique of SMART goals  presented in this article.

Time for action

Test  this technique when reading scientific literature.

♣ Start with one sheet of paper and set a goal. Write: Why do you want to read this paper? What do you want to do with the information you will find?

♣ Set a time frame (45 minutes maximum). This will help you stay focused.

♣ Before reading your paper, pre-read it.  Skim the text.

♣ Select which sections might contain information related to your goal. Don’t read them, just mark them.

♣ Once you have skimmed the whole paper, read the selected sections.

♣ Stop as soon as you reach your goal.

If you have not reached your goal within the time frame you fixed, take a break. Then set a time frame again and continue reading.

Breaks are indispensable to digest scientfic literature It is important to take regular breaks when you read: the density of information is so intense, that you need time to process it. Forcing yourself to read when you cannot absorb new information is useless. If you feel tired, if you cannot concentrate anymore, take a rest: move, breathe deeply (your brain needs oxygen), yawn (yawning refreshes your brain), stretch, blink, close your eyes.

Don’t use your breaks for reading (e.g. newspapers or emails). You need to do something completely different from reading if you want an efficient rest.

In conclusion, remember this golden rule when you read scientific litterature: set a goal before you read a text. In order to stay focused, set a limited time frame for reaching your goal. And take breaks (at least 1 per hour).

I wish you successful readings!



  • 01/10/2016

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