How I read papers


Keeping up with the literature in your field – the constant flow of papers detailing new work and reviewing coherent groups of results – is a cardinal part of being a scientist. Making this a habit that readily integrates into your workflow is hard; below, I detail how I’ve structured doing it, both to point folks to ways that may work for them and to gain some insight about ways to do it better.

I subscribe to the RSS feeds for the journals that I’m interested in – broadly, those that cover nanoscience, nanoscale biology, applied physics, neuroscience and similar fields. Having pointed this deluge at my RSS reader, I aggressivly skim the titles and author lists, looking for folks I know, authors whose work I follow, and topics and results I’m interested in. This culls the ~1000 items per day into 20 or so full papers to read. This is far too much for a day’s reading – I do have other things to do, like experiments to run and folks to follow up with. Of these 20 papers, I skim the bulk but read and pick apart at least two.

In-depth or not, when I read a paper, I use the following mnemonic to think about how to structure my reading:

This takes less than an hour a day. I’ve found that it’s a fantastic way to keep up with what folks are doing and where they are going? This approach may now work as well for review papers, but they are means to be read at a more leisurely pace anyway – integrating a series of results over a more substantial period of time.

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