Why I stopped reading the literature

This year I stopped reading the academic literature. Not entirely, of course — that would be career suicide. Nor is this a deliberately awkward response to the latest hashtag tyranny of #365papers, where fellow academics post how many papers they’ve read either to impress others or make them feel guilty. Mine was an accident that has settled into a default state.

For the last decade I have been able to claim with confidence that I read roughly 1000 papers a year. Now when I say read, you should be given to understand that this doesn’t mean poring over every single word. The normal protocol is to read the abstract, skim the introduction, flick through the figures then read the discussion until it gets boring*. If there’s anything that needs further scrutiny then I’ll look more closely, but it’s rare that the methods will receive more than cursory attention, perhaps checking for a few key words or standard techniques. I think most academics would say that in practice this is how they read papers.

By the end of the week I’m not mentally capable of intellectually-demanding work like writing manuscripts or analysing data, unless the pressure of a deadline forces me into it. So I’ve tended to hold Friday afternoons as a drop-in time for my group, and spent the gaps between meetings looking through recent journal issues and reading papers. This has helped me keep up to date with novel ideas, exposed me to new studies, and honed my awareness of what types of things are getting published.

My pattern of work all changed in the last academic year because I was inflicted with a new module with sessions scheduled in the Friday afternoon slot. No-one wants that time, least of all the students. It’s perhaps only marginally less unpopular than 9am on a Monday morning. Who wants to be in a lecture when there are pubs to go to? (I mean on Fridays, not 9am on Mondays. We’re not all alcoholics in the UK.)

My journal alerts system (I use Zetoc) has build up over the years to incorporate a wide array of sources. There are tables of contents for particular journals, search terms for the fields that I specialise in, and even a few names of colleagues whose work particularly interests me. I’m lucky enough to not need to keep track of competitors because I work in a field that no-one cares about so there’s little risk of being scooped**. At this moment the total number of unread alerts is about to pass 300. Catching up on all of those has reached the point where it’s simply impossible, unless I take a few weeks’ holiday and spend the whole time on academic reading. Which I’m not going to do.

When I was a (more) junior academic I remember being told by (more) senior academics that they didn’t read the literature any more. This struck me as a great pity. One phrase that I heard second-hand, supposedly from Chris Thomas, was that he no longer reads the literature — he raids it. If you’re writing a manuscript and need a reference to make a specific point then you go looking for an appropriate paper rather than attempting to follow everything. Another colleague told me that he expects his group to be his eyes into the literature, and relies on them to spot important new publications, which he gleans from their manuscripts and recycles into the next grant proposal.

With mixed feelings I’ve realised that I’m now headed in the same direction. I’m coming to terms with the idea that, in many cases, my graduate students have a firmer grasp of the frontline of the field than I do. Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. Over the last few years while writing a textbook it’s been necessary for me to keep on top of the literature to make sure I’m up-to-date. When covering so many subjects at once this is an overwhelming task. Delivering the final copy to the publishers removed the ongoing pressure to read and read more. But why was that process not fun? How can someone who loves his research and is passionate about his field not unequivocally enjoy the process of reading and discovering more about it?

A clue comes from a Masters-level class on science writing that I’ve just finished. This year I introduced a new exercise: the students were asked to come along with a piece of writing that they enjoyed reading. This could be anything at all — a book, website, magazine, paper — so long as it was in prose. Out of a class of 35, only one brought an article from a scientific journal. There were a handful with popular science books (Dawkins, E.O. Wilson), but the overwhelming majority arrived carrying fiction books.

What does this tell us? A small sample size, I know, but at least it’s an indication. These keen and bright students, at a top university***, immersed in the scientific literature, don’t first think of an academic paper when they’re asked about the most enjoyable things they read. This is probably because, for the most part, academic writing is terrible. Not many people would choose to read it for fun in their spare time. I read constantly at home — but the pile of papers in the corner isn’t the first thing I reach for.

The purpose of our class exercise was to look at the structure of enjoyable writing and see whether there are lessons that can be learnt for our own work. The pointers were perhaps predictable but nonetheless helpful: shorter sentences, simpler words, a focus on engaging rather than impressing the reader. My hope is that one day some of these students go on to produce a higher quality of scientific prose than the general average. Perhaps, in our small ways, we can redirect the tenor of academic writing and make it more pleasurable to read. Who knows, it might get me reading again.


* They all do, even mine. It’s the point where the author switches from actually discussing the results and their implications, and moves on to tenuous speculation or unnecessary criticism of other people’s work.

** This isn’t quite true on two counts. Firstly, there are plenty of people working on spatial self-organisation in natural systems. My experience, however, is that they’re (almost) all nice, supportive and collegiate people who encourage one another. I’ve never got the impression that there’s any competition. The other reason why scooping isn’t so much of a risk is that in ecology, data is king. No-one is going to beat me to publishing papers on Kamchatkan forest organisation because I’m pretty sure that no-one else has those kinds of data.

*** That’s what we’d like to believe, anyway. We do pretty well in some league tables but aren’t as impressive in others. Mostly we end up in the global top 100 and the UK top 20.

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15 thoughts on “Why I stopped reading the literature

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    Markus – nice piece! I read far less literature than I used to, as well. I argued here (http://wp.me/p5x2kS-o) that there are some positives to not being thoroughly well-read. Although as you suggest, one can obviously take that too far, I do think that reading the literature _before_ planning a study can be a straitjacket as much as anything.

    On enjoying the literature: this has become something of a bugbear of mine. It is true that much scientific writing is turgid, and most functional at best; but I don’t believe that it has to be. We made the choice to value turgidity (for instance, by teaching the passive voice), and we can make a choice to value clear and even sparkling writing. It does exist – I even collected some examples in very weird paper I published last year. A blog post about that paper, and about whether scientists value good writing, is here: http://wp.me/p5x2kS-2Q. (please forgive the self-links.)

    – Steve

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Steve (+1 for the retweet). I’m trying to instil an appreciation for good writing in our Masters class. It’s a battle against conflicting advice from other academics and the evidence of the literature at large though. I’ll look forward to seeing your book on writing. At the moment I recommend this short book which contains sensible advice and is admirably concise (http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/writing-for-university-jeanne-godfrey/?isb=9780230291201).

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  2. Brooke

    As someone who reads academic papers for a living (I’m a journal editor), I wholeheartedly agree that papers could be written in a more enjoyable way. One of the reasons we impose such strict word limits is to try to force the writing to be more concise and, hopefully, clearer. This is particularly an issue with more medical-leaning papers, as they often tend to be very technical.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks. I do plenty of reviewing, which represent the manuscripts that have at least made it past the first filter of the editor. As the front line you must see some particularly egregious examples of poor writing. What puzzles me is that it wasn’t always so — many papers published a few decades ago are highly readable.

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  3. Terry McGlynn

    Imagine if a huge number of people got together and made a pact to only publish one or two very substantial papers each year, instead of several less substantial papers. We’d all be scienceing a lot better.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      I’m not sure I agree with that. I write small papers not to salami-slice, but to test the water. Most of my ‘little’ papers have ended up leading to something more substantial and others are still in progress. The size and outlet of a paper are no measure of the quality of the writing itself.

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  4. Jaboury Ghazoul

    Great article Markus. Incidentally, I run an Environmental Literature course on Friday afternoons (in case you are interested check out my website). The students come because it’s fun and different. I run it as a book club. No pressure, no assessment, just discussion, a few laughs, and some great insights and perspectives. More importantly, they learn what good writing is, and they learn that it is fun reading it. It’s a great way to finish the week.

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  5. Pingback: Friday links: #0papers, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  6. jeffollerton

    I forgot to renew my Zetoc Alerts last autumn (I’m fairly sure I didn’t get a reminder) and only realised this week. On reflection I’ve enjoyed not having the pressure of these emails arriving every day and making me feel guilty for not reading all the interesting papers. But not so guilty that I didn’t not renew them….

    Like the idea of “raiding” the literature. Reminds me of what my former supervisor, the late Denis Owen, replied when someone asked him how he kept up all the literature: “I don’t read the literature” he said “I write it”.

    And that was in the 1980s…..

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Jeff. The same thing happened to me with Zetoc some time in early autumn, and it took a while before I noticed. I wonder whether something happened to their system? I’m trying to cut down the alerts and only sign up to those Tables of Contents that I *actually* care about.

      I think the faux-arrogant quip about writing rather than reading actually dates back to Haldane, and possibly earlier than that. I’ve definitely heard it before. On which note, a gratuitous Bowie reference: I recall an interview in the nineties in which the great man claimed that he’d stopped listening to music in the eighties because he realised that he was more important. It wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, even if it was true.

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  7. Pingback: In defence of old literature – Ecology is not a dirty word

  8. Pingback: What academic journals should I follow? | Trees In Space

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