As academics, we read a lot of journal papers. This is the foundation work that helps us understand what is happening in the field. Long before we start doing our own research, we need to know what has been already done and what needs to be done next. The same is for grant writing. The precursor to good, productive writing is plentiful, goal-driven reading.
Speaking in analogy, have you ever climbed atop one of the churches in Europe? You keep climbing the spiral stairways and every few floors there is a tiny window that looks outside. The lower you are, the less you see (whatever you see is also in a lot of detail). The higher you climb, the more you see (the level of detail also decreases). Learning about a field is just like that. You keep reading papers until you have a bird-eye view of the field. But in order to attain a bird-eye view, you have to start with the detailed view first.
Reading journal papers is time-consuming. Typically, they start with an abstract and introduction followed by a literature review, methods, results, discussion, limitation and conclusion. The order could vary depending on the field, but this is a general overview.
Abstract (a summary of the study)
Introduction (what you are going to read)
Literature review (what others have already done)
Methods (what the authors did and how they did it)
Results (what they found)
Discussion (interpreting what they found)
Limitation (what they could not find)
Conclusion (closing along with a note on what could be found in the future)
As a novice reader, it is easy to get caught up in the details of a paper until you realize that it’s been hours and you are still reading it. A good program or department offers a lot of classes that involve critically analyzing a paper. It’s an art you master with time and practice. Students read one or multiple papers beforehand and spend time in class critiquing singly or in groups. I used to find myself being caught up in reading because I would read very slowly and in a lot of detail. This is especially because I was not familiar with the methodology (another reason why I always recommend that PhD students take as many methods courses as they can, even if they might not seem immediately relevant or rewarding) and often wondered how to make sense of what the authors did. I would soon lose attention and start doing something else, not wanting to come back to the paper again. Then I got some great advice from my advisor.
Read a paper as if you are eating a bowl of rice. You do not eat rice one grain at a time. You do not individually chew the grains. You take a mouthful and chew until it is of digestible consistency before you swallow and go for the next helping.
Similarly, don’t read a paper word by word. Don’t get caught up in the mundane minutiae. Read the abstract very well. Skim through the introduction and directly go for the methods. If you are not clear about why they did what they did, come back to the literature review later, but do not spend a whole lot of time on it. After methods, go to the results/discussion to see what they found. Again, skim through it until you find the area that gets your attention. Read that well. Don’t get caught up in words. Skim until you see something interesting. Read that in detail. Repeat process. Don’t read word by word or line by line. Read idea by idea.
I found this advice very helpful. For my dissertation, I had to read more than 500 odd papers (some were not relevant, but how do you know they are not relevant unless you read a little bit of it?). I had attacked those papers like a bowl of rice. As a faculty, I read between 10-20 papers every week, and many more when I am writing a literature review. On an average, I give myself five minutes for each paper. I start with the title, read the abstract, and go straight for the research questions and methods. If the paper doesn’t make much sense to me, I do not put a whole lot of time into it. It is a skill you master with time. The more you read, the more you can get away reading lesser of a paper. You learn to directly attack the core, the meat.
Time yourself when you read. If you take 30 minutes for a paper, try reading the next one in 25 minutes. The idea is not to read lazily, but be able to find and attack the meat of the paper directly. Read fast. Read smart. Read purposefully. Good luck!