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Journal reading strategies?


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Hi, just curious as to your preferred strategy for reading scientific journal articles in your field.  I'm preparing to digest some major background reading in my field (incoming PhD student) and am looking for ideas how to be the most efficient/effective with my literature reviews.


Do you read a journal article once through quickly to get a rough idea of the content, then re-read with highlighter in hand for the nitty-gritty?


Only read a journal article once, very thoroughly, because you've already screened it hard from reading the abstract?


Immediately sit down after a thorough read and enter notes in Zotero?


Do you subscribe to any of the scientific journals in your field, do you just read the latest copy at the library, do you only read articles that you find via online searches, etc?


Any thoughts welcomed...  Thanks in advance!

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At the moment I am reading articles that are related to my dissertation or that I think might give me a fresh approach to things that I am thinking about. They are either recommended by my professors, cited by other papers, or I find them through searches. It's not a huge literature so I pretty much know what I'm up against. For each paper, I...


- Skim abstract, intro and conclusion. Determine how relevant the article is for what I'm doing.

- Go back, skim headings and intros of sections of the paper, get familiar with what's where and decide which parts (if any) I need to read carefully.

- Read text, go through proofs and data as necessary but without getting hung up on anything complicated I can't figure out.

- If necessary, work through difficult parts.


Throughout, if I have thoughts or comments I mark them with highlights and comments in the pdf file. I do that as the thoughts come up so I don't forget them later.

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My reading strategy varies depending on what type of journal I'm reading and why I'm reading that article so I'm not going to go into that here. I will say that I read more articles carefully and thoroughly early in my graduate career than I do now. It's kinda like fuzzylogician said, I'm up to speed on the field in general so I don't need to read people's intro or lit reviews very carefully. I'm also in an interdisciplinary field where people's methods vary a great deal and I tend to skim the methods, particularly when they're highly quantitative, because I know that I'll never need to replicate them so I just go ahead to the results and conclusion. But, when I was a new PhD student, I paid special attention to the methods because I wanted to see what people's research questions were and how they approached them to help me figure out how best to develop and approach my own questions.


To answer the last thing you asked, I don't know anyone that reads journals in the library anymore, mostly because most subscriptions are digital and your library likely doesn't have physical copies of the most recent issues. I signed up for and receive table of contents alerts for an array of journals that are related to my interests. I did this by tapping into the major publishers (ScienceDirect, Wiley-Blackwell, Sage, Oxford Journals, etc.) and following their process. I will say though that this is something that makes sense only once your interests are more defined. Otherwise, waking up to an inbox with TOCs for 30 journals (this happens like four times a year because of quarterly journal publication) would be daunting and possibly even overwhelming if you didn't know what you were looking for. I don't even read the abstracts of most of the articles that I come across that way because I can tell from their titles that they aren't particularly relevant to my dissertation. I click on and read the abstract for the ones that seem potentially interesting or relevant and, if they are, I might then decide to actually skim or read them. How much time I'll spend with an article depends on its relevance and how interested I am.


FWIW, I wouldn't pay for any journal subscriptions. The only ones I actually physically receive are the ones everyone gets through our disciplinary professional association. And, as of my next renewal, I'm switching to online-only access for that too since I rarely use the physical copies and they are just piling up in my office. Money is precious as a graduate student and if your library has the journals you need, I see no reason to take out an individual subscription. And, even if it doesn't, you can probably use Interlibrary Loan (ILL) to get the articles you need from journals you don't otherwise have access to.

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Every couple of weeks I go onto the website of the largest/most important journals in my field (such as Journal of the American Chemical Society and Journal of Organic Chemistry) and look at the 'Most Downloaded' articles for the past month. This directs me towards exciting papers and keeps me up-to-date with what is currently fashionable in research.


Personally, I print out the full article, reading through it several times until I've "got" it. I make a lot of notes in the margins and underline the important bits. On the first page I'll usually write a couple of words indicating what it was I found interesting about the article, or what it's theme was (eg. "Substitutions of pyridyls with Copper reagents"). That helps me find the relevant info again without having to do a full online search again.  

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I recently changed the way I approach reading an article, thanks to advice from a science communications class I'm taking. I now start with the conclusions, then intro, figures + captions, and abstract last to make sure I understand the flow of the paper. If it's something where I need to understand the methods in detail, I'll usually then go back and read the whole paper in order.


Starting with the conclusion seemed odd to me at first but has been really helpful and time-saving. I highly recommend at least trying it.


I am still working on my annotations system. Right now I've got a list of things it might be useful to know about a paper; depending on what I'm using any given paper for (background info in lit review section of my article, get ideas about experimental methods, get a sense of sexy new problems in my field) I'll take down notes on some or all of them. These all live in a single big Word file, so I can just search if I need something; as backup and for something more organized, I also paste the notes into the relevant Zotero entry.


I came up with the "useful things" list using stuff other people have posted about their literature review strategies, then just tweaked it for the ways I usually think about papers.


Title, Authors, Year, Journal:

Purpose/Hypothesis/Research Question:

Study organism:

Sample (size, M/F ratio, age, how they were selected):


Confounding variables:


Results (with specific):

Overall conclusion:


My objections:

Links to my research:

Directions I can take this:

Other notes:



As far as journal subscriptions, I have Google Scholar alerts saved for a few keyword searches and scientists whose work I like to follow. I also subscribe to an RSS feed of PNAS, and skim the biweekly titles for anything related to my interests. This is probably something I will expand a little more in the future, either through more keyword searches or TOC subscriptions.

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These are all excellent strategies! Thanks to the OP for asking the question!


BTW, which software do you use to organise this type of bibliography? (and attach your notes to it)

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