Mindfully Reading Scientific Literature: A Love Story


I have a confession. I love to read the literature. I just love it so much. No, I'm not being facetious.

Even if I never get paid to do science again, I'll probably continue to read a paper a day. I know what you are thinking, "What are you? Nuts!?" Well... possibly. BUT this nuttiness really worked in my favor in graduate school, and I'd like to share with you all some of the tips and tricks of reading the literature that I found really worked for me.

Why am I sharing this? Well, we at STEMing have seen many students who are creative and brilliant, but who do not read the literature. These students are consistently the ones who quit graduate school and/or do not get out enough publications to graduate in a timely manner. Basically, you have to read the literature if you want to succeed in graduate school. And there are a lot of blog posts out there about how to read scientific literature (from the Huffington Post's 2014 expose to Science's witty write-ins). This is because reading literature is a huge hurdle to overcome in your graduate school career. There is NO ESCAPE! muahahaha.

However,... there are paths you can take to successfully read the literature. 

So what is the trick to reading scientific literature? There are two easy steps. I promise you, just two.

Step 1: Be mindful (a.k.a. trick your mind into thinking your having fun, and then you just might)

Step 2: Engage creatively. 

I know,.. what the heck am I talking about. This sounds like advice that yoga gurus give each other while they are namaste-ing and stuff. HEAR ME OUT! This really works. 

Being mindful

While you are reading through a publication, pause and ask yourself metacognitive questions like the following:

     1) What do each of the figures demonstrate in my own words? 

     2) Does using a highlighter keep me engaged in reading?

     3) Which sections of the publication should I read first?

     4) How would I rewrite this publication if I could?

All of these questions fall under the category of metacognitive strategies for learning. In education pedagogy, metacognitive strategies are methods for increasing students retention of ideas (i.e. learning) by making students think about how they are thinking. If you want to learn more about this, the University of Vanderbilt has a great resource.

In short, metacognitive strategies are ways to trick your brain to learn more, by forcing yourself to be aware of your own responsibilities in learning. Yes, it is the old pull yourself up by your bootstraps tactic. But it really works! For example, when I read the literature, I often stumble upon words and phrases that are absolute gibberish to me. I savor these moments, as they are opportunities for me to write down expletives on refined scientific manuscripts (What the F*&^ does this even mean?!?!).

This brings me to a second point of being mindful. My advice is to ditch the highlighter, and adopt a pen of either the apple or non-virtual variety. You cannot engage deeply with a highlighter, all you can do is highlight what is already there, which is not actively connecting your knowledge-base with what is written in the literature. Everytime your pen touches paper, inflict upon it some part of your personality and be honest. If you do not understand something, admit it. If you do not agree with something, be ardent! This mindfulness will help you tremendously, I guarantee it!

Engage Creatively

Now that you have some insight into metacognitive strategies that you can use to read the literature, time to engage creatively and answer one of the following questions:

     1) How can you use the information in this to article in your own scientific endeavours?

     2) What visual aid is missing that would really help communicate the results?

     3) How would you describe these findings to a ten year old? 

     4) In what way could the results from this research impact science policy in your country?

All of these questions require you to harness the creative side of your brain and APPLY what you have learned to a new discipline. 

If you REALLY want to understand the literature, choose one of these questions and apply it to every paper you ever read. If you are interested in going into academia, the first question may really work well for you. If you are interested in scientific communication as a career, the second question might be more of your forte. If you want to be an educator or go into scientific outreach, the 3rd question might be more engaging. Finally, if you are a science policy nerd, the last question might be the best for you.

If you REALLY REALLY want to understand the literature, start your own newsletter where you summarize papers in your discipline and send it out to your laboratory - I did this is graduate school on the subject of intrinsically disordered proteins and it really helped me learn the literature! Or if you are more artistic, draw an image that capture the main points of the paper. Even creating a powerpoint presentation can help to solidify the concepts from a paper into your long term memory. 

In summary, the best way to learn the literature, is to trick your mind into finding utility in the new knowledge by applying the new knowledge gained to the field of study that most intrigues you. Good luck and happy reading!

So go forth and read the literature! Be mindful and creative, and maybe you will find that this process works for you just as it did for me!


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