On Sustaining Reading Habits

Eva Lantsoght
5 jan ’17

We all know that the literature review involves a lot of reading: sitting down and going through piles and piles of papers, technical reports, and books. But what happens after you finish your literature review? You know that you have to "keep up with the output". But the amount of papers published on a daily basis is enormous. How do you define what you should read and what is not a priority?

Reading recent publications, and closing some gaps in your knowledge by reading additional papers from the past, is the best way to continuously grow your understanding about your topic and one of the most important ways to grow your research creativity. If you are in a PhD program, you need to keep reading about your topic, so that your literature review chapter will be up-to-date when you submit your thesis (and not two years old). If you are an early career researcher, you will need to read more broadly, learning about research topics that are tangentially related to your field, and that might be interested for a future project and/or collaboration. Wherever you are in your career path, it can be good to learn how to read fast, and to read differently for different purposes.

Once we finish our literature review, we need to combine an ever-increasing number of tasks. As a PhD student, you might be moving into experimental work, and the analysis of these experiments, and perhaps preparing for your first conference. As an early career researcher, especially if you just started teaching, the sheer amount of amount of different responsibilities can be overwhelming. Keeping up with the literature might be your last priority when deadlines are looming around the corner. Here's how you can develop and sustain a habit of reading technical content:

1. Schedule time

As always, planning is key. Keep time for reading in your schedule, as busy as it is, and, if you can't find peace and quiet in your office, go to a place where you can do the reading that you need to do. In that case, consider it a date with yourself: go to a nice coffee place or the library to read comfortably, and schedule the time to get there and settle in, the time to do your reading, and then the time to transition to your next appointment. If you find it difficult to stick to your commitment during the week because of external factors, then try to find at least two hours on an evening during the week or during the weekend for your reading.

2. Save material in an accessible place

Make sure that you have the material that you need to read available when you have time to read. Don't make the mistake of "starting" your reading hour by doing a search on scopus, and then browse from paper to paper without doing the actual reading (or worse: get trapped in the interwebz). Have your papers accessible on your digital device of choice, or have them printed out and on your desk when you start reading.

3. Volunteer to review

One way to put deadlines to when you need to read something is by serving as a reviewer. While this option might not be available to you when you start your PhD, you can expect to begin reviewing towards the end of your PhD, or towards the beginning of your first academic appointment after your PhD. If you are interested in starting to serve as a reviewer, there are a number of steps you can take (see this post by Veronika Cheplygina).

4. Get print versions of journals

When you sign up for professional memberships, you often receive access to the professional institution's publications. If there is an option to get a print copy of the journal, and it is an important journal for your field, then select the print copy. If you have a print copy in your house, or on your office desk, you might feel more tempted to pick up the journal and read it then that you'd feel about accessing a PDF hidden somewhere in your data structure. With a print copy at home, you might pick it up and read something while eating, waiting for a friend to arrive, or simply when you feel like it.

5. Use conference presentations to read

If you attend a conference, and the conference offers the proceedings at the time of the conference, then you can use the time during the presentation to add notes to the PDF of the full paper, to highlight important parts, or even to see the small figures and tables right in front of you. After the presentation, make sure you add the file of the conference paper to your paper management system.

6. Revise your literature for every paper you write

Whenever you write a paper, make sure that your literature review section is up to date. Additionally, if you are submitting to a certain journal, it is a good idea to search for the topic of your paper through the archives of that journal, and refer to it. You have to show the editor that you didn't miss a crucial publication from the journal you are submitting your work to.

7. Reading club

If they idea of getting curled up in a library with something to read is not so appealing for you, you can see if you can form a reading club with your colleagues. You can identify a certain number of papers that you want to read, meet up at a set time once a week or every other week, and take that time to discuss the contents of the papers you read. Having a meeting to look forward to is like having a deadline for reading the papers - you don't want to show up unable to participate in the discussion.

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