This article gets across a truth that many people have heard as a piece of advice, but find hard to follow: read the scientific literature widely.
Perhaps the bigger question is why I make the effort. The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself for whatever might come along in the lab. My biggest fear is the one that got away, the important discovery that I missed because I couldn’t see it for what it was. It’s this fear that drives me to cast my intellectual net widely, so that I have the broad foundation I need to see my research from multiple angles. Given the limited number of hours in each day, it can be tempting to read only in my subdiscipline, but I know that doing so would ultimately limit the kinds of connections I can draw. Fortune favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur famously said to explain his scientific success, and I am doing my best to be prepared.
In some ways, this has become harder and harder to do over the years, because the literature has gotten larger and larger. But the tools to deal with it have improved as well. Being able to browse through titles and graphical abstracts (in an RSS feed, on a journal site, what have you) is enough to get a sense of what’s going on. And as the piece linked to above says, another key is to be willing to follow references in something that you already find interesting or useful. You can end up going through several layers of papers, and learning a bit more from each one. There’s not enough time in a day (or some days, enough neuronal capacity) to do that all the time, but when you see something good, digging into it is highly recommended. And if that takes you into journals that you don’t usually read, so much the better.
One thing, though, that goes unspoken in such discussions is that the person doing the reading has to have the energy, the time, and the mental organization and memory to make this work. These variables are not independent – if you are organized enough and energetic enough to read deeply in the literature, you probably already have many of the qualities needed to succeed in research, and that can’t then be put down to just your reading habits. But organization and making time for things is not some innate skill – they’re learned, and they can be practiced. The flip side is that if you work on being able to keep up with interesting literature, you’ll be acquiring habits and skills that will help you in the rest of your research, even if you don’t come across something that solves some huge problem in it.
And keep in mind that the scientific literature being so broad can actually work to your advantage. There are probably not many synthetic organic chemists that ever browse materials science journals, just as there are not many X-ray crystallographers that read chemical biology papers, and so on. If you’re one of them, you stand to be one of the people who will be capable of making connections that no one else is making – and there are a lot of connections to be made out there.