Papers, reading papers here!

Jan 10 2012 Published by under Academia

I've noticed something about young people in science (and maybe this translates well to older people in science, too).

We lie like rugs.

Not big things like your name, your birthdate, you scientific findings. No no. Little lies. Things like "yeah, I totally work at least 2 hours every night when I get home". Honey, I see you there on Twitter. You keep using the word "Work". I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, I don't doubt that you SOMETIMES put in work in the evenings. Heck, maybe you do it a lot. But is it always two hours or more? I hear people say they put in four. And if you're here 8-6, and you've got young kids, AND you're telling me you work an extra four hours every night? I'll be honest I don't believe you. (I'm not saying it's BAD that you don't work an extra four hours. I personally think you shouldn't. I think you should go home, clear your mind, and spend time with your kids and your significant other. If you don't have kids or others I think you should spend time with your friends, family, or dog.) But from what many of my colleagues tell me, you'd think they all spend their full lives reading papers at the gym, while family dinners are reserved for grant writing. They write papers with one hand while teaching their kids elementary french with the other and using their recently surgically attached third arm to make nutritious meals. Sleep? Who needs it? If this is indeed what they are all doing every minute of their lives...I'm screwed for science. Screwed.

But I'm pretty sure they're lying.

I know why we tell each other these lies. We tell them to each other because we want to show how dedicated we are. We want to prove that we're "cut out" to be in science, etc, etc.

But the lies and why we tell them are not what I'm interested in today. What I'm interested in...are PAPERS.

How many papers do you read? From the piles on people's desks (still 'to read'? Or 'have read'?) you'd think we churned through 20 papers a day. And from what people SAY when asked, well you'd think that, too. "Oh yes, I read the entirety of Science every time it comes out. I know it's not relevant to my work in pharmacology, but astronomy can be so instructive, don't you know?" I have to say I never believe anyone who tells me this (and people HAVE ACTUALLY TOLD ME THIS). Never. I'll believe you skimmed all the TITLES of all the papers, sure. But do I really believe that you read both "Voyager Measurements of Hydrogen Lyman-α Diffuse Emission from the Milky Way" and "Graphitic Tribological Layers in Metal-on-Metal Hip Replacements" with the same rapt attention, when your field focuses only on "Mouse B-Type Lamins Are Required for Proper Organogenesis But Not by Embryonic Stem Cells"?!?! I'll be honest, I think you're lying.

So I want to know the truth. How many papers would you say you read, on average, per week? I know this can vary drastically, some weeks I know I'm at the bench the whole time, while others it's all reading and writing. But average it out. How many do you read? 5? 10? 50? More or less? Do you feel you read "enough"? Do you feel you read less or more than other people of your professional group?

Let's have a survey, shall we?

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EDIT: Ok, define "reading". By "read" I mean, read abstract, look at all the figures, glance at discussion, and be able to discuss if necessary with more than a "Oh yes, so and so et all saw increases in the whatchamacallit in the blah de blah". Being able to discuss both merits and flaws.

31 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    Deppends a bit what you mean by "read" of course. If you mean "skim lots of paper titles in my daily RSS feed, then take a quick look at the abstract of potentially interesting stuff" then I read lots.

    If reading is "look at abstract and figures, quick glance at discussion and references, dump paper in Zotero in the unlikely case I'll ever need it again" then I read at least a few papers a day on average.

    If you mean "I read the whole thing" then, oh, one or two per week or so.

    You know - but perhaps not all readers here do - that I'm not kidding about what "reading" means. It's one of the skills we pick up after all, to accurately determine the relevance of a paper from spending only seconds looking at it. I'd say my second example above does count as "reading" a paper.

    • scicurious says:

      Yeah, I should have defined it. I would say the second. Good idea of what the paper's about, could discuss if necessary.

    • scicurious says:

      Right. I would say...Read full abstract, look at all the figures, discussion and references, and maybe methods depending on what you need. Not talking laser eye.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Checking the references to make sure they cited me counts as reading, right?

  • It really varies. If you get something like a page long nature paper on your desk in a subject you know little about, you will have to trawl its references to have a chance of understanding what's going on.
    The most I would read is 10 papers in a day, unless I am really interested in a subject, or really don't believe what someone is saying in a paper and need confirmation.
    But I download ten times as much stuff as I read into Mendeley, so that I can use it's search function when I need to ask specific questions of the literature.

  • My friend was a grad student for super-famous scientist K at Caltech. One day my friend asked his advisor how many papers he read a week. K. said 'besides papers I review, zero.' My friend very suprised said 'Really?' Then K pointed to the phone on his desk and said, 'If something important happens someone will call me.'

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    For me it sort of depends. If I'm waist deep in benchwork it will usually be a paper or two a week. These are usually methodology papers for troubleshooting purposes or if something comes out that relates directly to my field/project. If I'm writing manuscripts or grants I can knock back 10 in a day (using your definition of reading) but it's more like 3-4 if I'm taking detailed notes for constructing a narrative.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Not enough. I skim titles and abstracts in my Google Reader every day, and ToCs when they come out, but like, download a paper and read it? Rarely, unless it's hugely relevant to my own stuff or I'm writing a grant or manuscript. Need better habits! But when is there time?

    • Travis says:

      This is basically the same as me. If I'm working on a paper or grant then I'm probably reading a TON of papers - I've worked on 3 systematic reviews in the past year, and using the above definition I was reading 5-10 papers/day while working on them. Similarly, during my comps and leading up to my thesis proposal/grant submission I was doing little other than reading.

      Now that I'm in the lab most days it feels more like treading water - reading the absolutely essential stuff so that I'm not falling behind - but in general I'm not reading all that many papers at all... maybe 1-2/week? I bookmark some that seem relevant, and then read them when it's time to start writing. I also follow a number of bloggers in my area, which I use as a way to help me identify the really key papers that I might want to check out. The papers that I do read tend to be systematic reviews or really novel interventions, while saving the rest for down the road. I'm in a pretty small niche within physiology so it's not too hard to keep up-to-date, but I don't see any advantage in trying to read *everything* that comes out just because it's tangentially related to my thesis topic. Quite frankly that seems like a very inefficient use of time.

  • Bashir says:

    There's an apocryphal story about a guy writing a grant in the men's room during a break at a conference. By apocryphal, I mean not really true but plausible if you know the guy.

  • Bashir says:

    I don't read enough in the sense that there is a backlog of relevant papers that I need to read. I download like crazy but read a tad slower.

  • Hermitage says:

    I don't know who the fuck is reading 10+ papers a week and getting shit done in the lab, they need to provide an instructional booklet on how to pull that off. I suppose it strongly depends on field, if your papers are usually 2-4 pages long, then maybe. If I read 10+ manuscripts a week I would easily be reading in excess of 200 pages and I don't think that's reasonable at all.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Huh, I didn't realize we were acquainted, Bashir!

  • brian says:

    I disagree with these definitions of reading. An abstract and figures are in no way reading a paper. To truly grasp what authors are trying to say you need to have a working knowledge of the entire article, intros and discussions are critical since bad assumptions and wrong interpretations are the most likely errors in any paper. Abstract and figures and a quick skim of the discussion are a cop out way of upping your read list. If you can't have a journal club about the paper with out it needing to constantly "reread" it you haven't read the paper, all you've done is added it to your reference list which is essentially meaningless.

  • drugmonkey says:


    The point of science is not to up your "read list". It is to synthesize that which has been demonstrated into an apprehension that lets you set new directions and interpret your own data. Sometimes all that is required is a quick scan of a figure, sometimes a deep read and yes, sometimes repeatedly deep-reading a complicated and/or particularly meaty paper.

    • brian says:

      Obviously the point is not to up your reading list, that was actually the point of my first post, maybe I wasn't clear enough about that.
      I've since had a few discussions today with a number of other post-docs and faculty about what constitutes reading a paper, and the spectrum has been broad, but all have agreed that a quick scan really doesn't get you much. There's too much hidden in papers, like subjects dropped, assumptions made, or incorrect methodologies that can be missed which will drastically change how you might understand the figures you're looking at. Some have said that the abstract, and figures is enough, but most said they wouldn't feel comfortable discussing such a paper afterwards. Which begs the question what were you doing during that time if you can't discuss the science. The reading of a paper should constitute, as you implied, the synthesis of that information into your own knowledge base. Maybe it just takes more information for me to do that.

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  • Travis says:

    I'm curious what people mean by "relevant papers I need to read". Does this mean "papers that will have a direct impact on my current/future work in some way" or, does it mean "papers that are in my general area of research"?

  • O.R. Pagan says:

    Thank you for your post! It made me realize how little I am actually reading. I teach about 4 different courses every semester at a predominantly undergraduate institution, plus I have an active research laboratory; I do not even want to mention administration, committees, etc!

    I promise I will try to read more..... (:-)..... BTW, I agree with you when you are skeptic Bout someone who says that reads "the entire issue of Science".....

  • The more junior you are, and the newer you are to a field, the more papers you need to be reading.

  • arrzey says:

    Sometimes reading papers is avoidance behavior. Get off your butt, collect data, analyze data, and do something. I am tired of "I'm reading about it..."

  • Sarah C says:

    This made me both laugh and feel relieved, because I'm not the only one! It's a truly relevant question for graduate students writing their thesis... how many of those hundreds of references do you really read? I have to admit, at best, I read, in detail, only about a tenth of the references I used.

    There's skimming and there's reading. I can skim a paper and get enough of an understanding to discuss it in journal club. And I would say I skim between 5-7 papers per day, if I'm looking for something in particular or if a new issue of an interesting journal. But I only read 1-3 papers per week.

    My boss claims he uses his e-reader to read papers at night in bed. Since he spends a good part of his time in the office watching soccer, his claim is somewhat dubious. : ) Unless of course he's watching soccer at work since he can't at home, and doing work at home since he's watching soccer at work... that sounds about right.

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