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The Scientific Literature

Read, And Read the Odd Stuff

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.

37 comments on “Read, And Read the Odd Stuff”

  1. CS says:

    I’m a synthetic organic chemist who reads materials science papers *and* a crystallographer who reads chemical biology papers. It’s all fascinating stuff, gives you great ideas for new projects, and since you’ve got a bit of background, means that you can always find something of interest in a conference.

  2. Chrispy says:

    I really miss going to the library. That rack of new journals really encouraged browsing something that you normally wouldn’t. I’d not go back to the bad old days of Xeroxes, but the ability nowadays to directly access articles does cut a lot of serendipity out of the process. Even now, following references, it is easy to miss that perhaps a whole journal issue was devoted to a special topic, not just the paper you downloaded. And surely I’m not the only one who breathes a sigh of relief as I track a research thread back to the olden days, as I have more confidence in these results. Nowadays it seems like a 50/50 chance that a publication reflects something real — it’s a bummer!

    1. CMCguy says:

      Chrispy what you say is so very true as I can’t count the number times I found a citation of interest to either current projects or potential new areas for later exploration when doing either a general browse or even while hunting down particular papers when stumbled across something that caught my eye. To me was all part of the serendipity that frequency enabled progress.

      I can’t say in literature reading I ventured much away from my own area, because it was so overwhelming trying to just keep abreast in my field plus lack of or forgotten fundamentals in other disciplines meant not always understood well enough. However I know had intentional interactions with other people in different disciplines, typically occasional lunches, where sharing took place that could provide input from other angles to one’s research.

      1. a says:

        It’s not the same as physical browsing, but signing up for pushed alerts of TOCs to my email inbox helped for a few years. I would read the email, and click on any pdf of interest – almost as good as browsing a physical journal.

    2. Emjeff says:

      Me, too. I loved paging through old issue of journals to figure out what folks were thinking about “back then”. As well, paging through new issues gives you all sorts of ideas on how to approach your own problems. The big advantage of the library was that it took you out of the office, and allowed you to focus on what you were doing. Paging through electronic journals in between meetings is not quite the same, although access is so much better now.

    3. David Antonini says:

      This is a huge deal to me. It connects to our news consumption these days too. How many kids don’t end up in fields they would have been brilliant and fulfilled in, because they wondered down the art, or history, or sciences aisles at the library, rather than the comics aisle? The same could be said for Newton proverbially walking outdoors under the tree…

      The ‘old’ ways of doing things had advantages we never thought of before we miss them.

  3. tlp says:

    Given that many (most?) published results are irreproducible, reading random textbooks might be a more efficient approach than parsing recent papers. For getting reliable knowledge that is, not figuring out what others are up to.

    1. Mark Thorson says:

      You can simplify that process by reading monographs. These are edited by experts in their topic, so they already know what citations are essential reading and what are crap. They usually have history and a comprehensive treatment of production, processes, and applications. ACS produced a huge number of excellent monographs on a wide variety of topics. I especially like when a monograph has a miscellaneous chapter or something like that — it is sometimes called unusual applications — for weird stuff that didn’t fit in the rest of the book. Chapters like that are often full of surprises.

    2. Adam says:

      Certainly most reported biology these days is not reproducible (cell biologist: can confirm). The textbook thing is a great idea; or another way I like to think about it is that I am searching the literature for what will probably be in a textbook in 10 years.

  4. Anon says:

    Problem with reading too broadly is sheer volume x diminishing impact and quality (lack of reproducibility), so one always has to prioritize.

    Thus, I would suggest reading mostly papers that have very broad, inter-disciplinary implications and applications, just as a general source of ideas and concepts, which could be mashed together in the brain, rather than most papers which are designed to answer specific questions in a very narrow field.

    1. Ru barf says:

      That’s why I only read the papers with the most yields and substrates so I can get back to doing the important stuff

  5. merging x and y says:

    No you should just screen catalysts and additives until you get the next iterative advance; rinse and repeat

  6. secret sauce says:

    What sets chemists apart is work ethic, or “shots on goal.” You can’t set up more reactions when your reading all the time

    1. a says:

      you will be replaced by a pipetting/screening robot soon, “Dr Shots on Goal”

      1. Ken says:

        No doubt the robot will be programmed to methodically synthesize all possible chemical structures with 1, 2, 3, … atoms and screen them for biological activity. Maybe we can even skip the robot, and just use computational chemistry.

      2. CS says:

        This is very much the case. Your ideas aren’t going to get replaced. But in any case when you’re in the lab there are always annoying chunks of time waiting for some process or other to finish that can be filled up with reading print outs, or at least getting through your RSS.

    2. Ursa Major says:

      Setting up reactions is not doing chemistry. Chemistry is figuring out which reactions to do and what the results mean.

      1. tlp says:

        without setting up the reactions all your ‘chemistry’ is worthless

  7. Curious Wavefunction says:

    As a molecular modeler, reading the medicinal chemistry literature has been indispensable for me, especially since so many problems in drug discovery cannot be addressed by rational drug design and have to be resolved through empirical data analysis and serendipity. For this purpose, I have found that J. Med. Chem., Nat. Rev. Drug Disc., ACS Med. Chem. Lett. and BMCL usually suffice.

  8. Mol Biologist says:

    Both reading and thinking are good exercises to keep you up with the current status of your favorite subjects. Thank you Derek for keeping your blog alive.

  9. Julian West says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Derek! In the article I mention how, “Chemistry also has a small but vibrant blogging community, and sometimes a thoughtful post highlighting a recent paper will start me on one of my literature dives.” Suffice it to say that I consider ItP to be a key player in this community and I am grateful for your tireless and insightful coverage of a diverse range of topics.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Thanks! Glad to be a part of it.

  10. Andy II says:

    There are so many “Chemical Biology” focused academic people/labs and consequently the journals with chemical biology nowadays. It is good to make chemist understand biological events and vice versa. However, it is still difficult to do both disciplines at an industrial setting. When you go to a pharma R&D, you may have to choose one discipline and the upper management expect you to be an expert in the chosen area. I was wondering if a student would receive an enough training for either chemistry or biology to be an independent chemist or biologist. I maybe an old school guy to worry too much….

  11. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    I miss the weekly visit to the New Journals Shelf, when I would skim lots of journals. I find it’s harder to skim PDF files. On the other hand, I can pull up related articles on PubMed, or in a PMC article look at other articles that cite the one I’m reading. And of course go backwards in time to what the article I’m reading cites.

    Sometimes I find the previous paper doesn’t say what the paper citing it thinks it says! So checking can be quite important.

    1. Mark Thorson says:

      You’ve been given a machine gun, and you’re complaining you can’t pick up and reuse your arrows anymore. I used to take pride in my files bulging with xeroxes of papers obtained at great effort in the library. I hardly consult those anymore, unless it’s some landmark paper I only have on paper. Almost all of the papers I consult I have as PDF files.

      Sometimes I find the previous paper doesn’t say what the paper citing it thinks it says!

      Whoa! Really? Isn’t that illegal or something?

  12. anon says:

    I thought this was common sense. Did we really need a post in Science? I wish the author told us the specific example he’s talking about here.

    1. Nobama says:

      Sounds like you’ve been out of academia a real long time

    2. DCM says:

      Totally. Only the latest Blue Light Special is worthy enough to grace the pages of Science.

    3. Anone says:

      Carbon Uranium Carbon Potassium

  13. GladToMoveToProcess says:

    Someone in grad school suggested that, besides browsing all the new journal issues, I always read, or at least skim, the paper before and after the one I was looking up. Good advice! One such ended up being an important reaction for my thesis, and many others have helped in various ways over the last 40+ years.

  14. Istvan Ujvary says:

    My motto (held true especially in the 1980s when computer databases became accessible):
    When you do searches – so easy nowadays – you only learn what you are interested in; but when you read literature you learn a lot about things your peers are interested in.

  15. JG4 says:

    “The T-shaped people are the most valuable ones in any organization.”

    see for example,

  16. yoyomama says:

    There was a time when the librarians at our company interpreted the copyright law as saying that not only could we not share pdfs with our colleagues, but that we could not even store them on our hard drives. I imagine that was an Elsevier generated interpretation of copyright law, but one that was strongly held by the managers of our librarians.

  17. SW says:

    One way I get that serependicity is to have a look at what papers have been printed when walking by the department’s printer. It’s nice to see what you’re colleague are reading (and deemed important enough to be printed).

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