I read a scientific article every day for three months — here is what I learned
Reading one scientific article per day is a great way to increase your productivity and broaden your horizons. However, it can seem a bit daunting at first. That’s why I’m sharing my tricks and hacks that helped me to read more articles.
1. It’s not that hard
Reading a scientific article every day sounds like a tall order. However, I noticed that it’s surprisingly doable. First, I already had to read quite a few articles anyway to prepare lectures, write my own papers, or put together funding applications. By reading one article per day, I’m just spreading this work out more evenly. Second, I do not read the full details of each article. For instance, if it’s a topic that I’m quite familiar with, I skim the introduction and focus more attention on novel methods or results. Third, I pick articles depending on my schedule. For instance, if it’s a busy day with lots of meetings, I read a short primary research article. When I have a bit more time, I delve into review articles or opinion pieces.
2. You have to be strategic
There are so many papers published now that it is impossible to keep up, even within fairly circumscribed subfields. Similarly, it would be a waste of time to read all papers just because they look superficially relevant. To tackle the deluge of content and find relevant papers, I employ a two-step system. The first step is to collect content. For this step, I go through the feed of new papers from journals that I regularly read. In the first pass, I scan the title of each paper and read the abstract if the title seems relevant. If I want to decide to read the full paper, I download the PDF and add it to my to-read folder on my Desktop. I go through a similar process when I research a particular topic, i.e. scan then discard or save. The second step is the actual reading. I find it important to never read the paper immediately after saving it. That’s because I noticed that I tend to save papers that I do not find that relevant later on. If there is a paper that gets pushed down in my read-later folder, I delete it after one month because it was clearly not important enough to keep my attention.
3. You need a system
One of the things that held me back from reading this many papers before was that I did not have a good system in place to capture all of the knowledge. It felt a bit pointless to read paper after paper because I would have forgotten everything a few weeks later. Now, I set up a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system. I won’t go into the details here because there are numerous articles on this topic that you can easily find online. It will also require quite a bit of experimenting to find an approach that works for your individual needs. For my PKM, I read each article in an app that allows me to expert the highlighted sections as a text file — I use PDF Expert. In the next step, I copy the highlighted text into a paper notes template that I set up on my note-taking app — I use Evernote. The template contains fields to summarise the paper in three bullet points, a section for the highlights, and a field for the full reference including the DOI hyperlink. I copy the highlights, check that the headings are included to make sense of the structure later, and summarise the main points of the paper. I typically write one or two takeaway message for a primary research paper and potentially a few more for review articles. I also identify any links to other papers I read and comment on how the paper fits in their context. Once I’m happy with the note, I file it in my long-term storage — I use Obsidian for this.
4. Share your work
One of the challenges of keeping up the paper reading is that it’s a solitary pursuit that does not provide any immediate payoffs. I found that sharing my efforts increased my motivation and led to other positive side effects that keep me motivated. I decided to pick my favourite paper each month and write a short blog post about it. The blog posts always follow the same schema to reduce the effort that needs to go into it. For the post, I describe the context of the paper, summarise the main points, highlight what I learned from it, and add a reference to a related paper. Then, I send a tweet about the blog post and tag the authors of the paper. I do this because I think that the authors will appreciate it and because it allows me to connect with researchers whose work I like.