29 February 2012
By Blanka Sengerová
In another post where reading whilst exercising was discussed, we've raised the issue of how people ensure that academic reading they do doesn't go in one ear (or more accurately one eye) and out the other. How do you make sure that two years down the line, when you're writing up your paper, y/ou can still remember where a particular technique was first used or where that all-important quotation was introduced
I thought I'd list techniques that seem to have worked for me over the years, and invite others to add their own ones to the list so we can share what works.
i) The PhD years are ones where you know you're going to have to produce a significant piece of writing at the end of the time, and you're probably as best as you'll ever be in keeping track of references. To this end, writing a brief 1-2 paragraph summary of each paper in your own words was very helpful for me.
ii) Get a reference library started and kept up to date (EndNote was very helpful for this, even though it can sometimes be a bit of a pain when you're writing papers and trying to share drafts with coauthors who have different versions of the library). It can take some time to get used to this type of software but you will be glad of it during the writing stage. Keep a copy of the PDF of the paper attached to the EndNote entry, it makes it easy to refer to later.
iii) In my field, there may be detailed biochemical descriptions of experiments with tiny modifications (metal ion concentration, enzymes from different sources, slightly different substrates, millions of other things) that can make a difference to conclusions (eg. kinetic parameters) so sometimes it is good to keep a summary of these findings in a table, with a quick link to the reference where a particular number came from.
iv) Make time for reading papers that is relatively undisturbed by other activities (music, being in the lab where others can easily knock on your shoulder, etc.). I find that if I let my mind wander, I might have to read a paragraph 4 times before I get the gist, and I am sure there are better ways for me to spend the time. It's also much better to have time to finish reading an entire paper, rather than going back to it. I used to spend a lot of weekends during my PhD visiting my then boyfriend by train, and the Friday afternoon journey from Sheffield to London was often used to read papers, leaving the journey out of London for pleasure reading, which always seemed quite productive.
v) Make sure you stay aware of new work published in your field, and include references to the newest work in your writing when relevant. Whilst much of my first year literature review in my PhD was useful for the final thesis, there were certainly several new key papers that had to be included, which were published during my PhD years. The best way of doing this is getting signed up to table of contents alerts for the journals that are relevant to your field (which does have the downside of many ToCs to sift through every time you return from holiday).
Over to you guys, do you want to add some more tips?