Reading really helps, for a lot of reasons

May 31, 2012 | by Nick Snead

Nick SneadIn one of my previous blog posts, I hinted that I felt that reading scientific literature was important. I have a list of reasons (most/some of which you probably already know?) that I would submit to you as to the importance of reading articles regularly and frequently.

Reading helps you to:

 (1) Understand how to be a better scientific writer yourself. Just like attending a seminar that was either really good or really bad and thinking about how to incorporate the positive attributes into your own future presentations, lots of reading will expose you to a lot of really well-written or really poorly written articles for you to internalize and use for your own style.

 (2) Develop an understanding of a wide variety of techniques. The more you read, the more exposure to new techniques you will pick up, and a better understanding of which assays are the most appropriate/common for a particular scientific question.

 (3) Define more angles to attack the question. Personally, most of my research is molecular biology-based, and I can get locked into thinking about things using cell culture and in vitro assays. From checking the literature, I am frequently excited to see when structural biologists have finally solved the crystal structure or when researchers successfully develop a knock-out mouse for one of the proteins important in my field of research. It helps me remember to keep research findings as part of a diverse context.

 (4) Learn to read faster and write faster. I don’t know why, but test this on yourself. Maybe it’s because some aspect of scientific writing (and reading) is somewhat formulaic and generic, and perhaps more reading helps you to think in a template-like mindset, which ultimately is faster?

 (5) Understand how much work you should do in order to publish. As an older student, I am sometimes faced with the dreaded question, “So, are you almost finished with your research/Ph.D.?” Whereas sometimes a clue to the answer of this question may rely on looking at previous graduate students in one’s lab, another good clue is probably in the literature. If you can honestly and objectively say that you have done just as much work, with enough nicely laid-out figures and sufficient advancement of your field, as many of the papers that you read, then you should have an answer to this question yourself and not be at the mercy of your committee. The only way you will know how much work you have done compared to other published researchers in your field, however, is to read.

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