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Few aspects of scientific work may be as crucial—and yet as easy to neglect—as reading the literature.
Beginning a new research project or writing a grant application can be good opportunities for extensive literature searches, but carving out time to keep abreast of newly published papers on a regular basis is often challenging.
It is extremely important to find what you need in the scientific literature, but it’s difficult for anyone to block out the necessary time.
For young scientists in particular, there is the additional challenge of trying to stay on top of newly published literature while still building up knowledge of their research areas. To be able to provide novel results, you have to know what has been done before you. Another challenge for me is that my research is multi-faceted, so I need to read in my broader field, which covers a lot of ground.
Without knowing where the current gaps are, your findings will either be old hat or too out in left field to be cited right away. One of them is that reading papers can feel like dead time, because it is such a slow and absorbing process, and there are so many papers out there to digest.
Reading can also feel disheartening, as you will often find that other people have already published on what you thought was a really novel or original idea.
And so it can all too easily happen that this important task of investing in your knowledge gets prioritized lower than all the other apparently more urgent duties that you have as a scientist.
Our job is to push the frontier of what is already known, so we need to be aware of where this frontier is.
But I do find it difficult to integrate this task into my daily routine.
I also become aware of new publications through colleagues who email me, and from social media.
Twitter is an underutilized resource in science, but it’s great—if you follow the right people—for keeping your finger on the pulse of new work that is coming out.
Plus, you want to benefit from all the ideas, data, and interpretations that have accumulated in the literature right up to that point. Our function as scientists is to push the envelope and create new knowledge and understanding, so we always need to be as up to date as we can be in our areas.
But keeping up with the literature is potentially an overwhelmingly large task, and there are no deadlines attached to it.