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Is reading research papers a chore? Here’s some time saving tips.

I presented a webinar this Wednesday on how to get a Ph.D. in as few years as possible.  I myself graduated after only 3 years in my thesis lab.  One of the things that really saved me time was the way I searched, organized and read research papers.  I’ll share some of these tips in this post.

TLDR: automate the search for most relevant papers, use good organizational habits, and read articles the smart way.

Getting good papers:

How do you keep up to date with the latest paper in your field, or find that perfect article to cite for your paper?  Do you randomly search for key words hoping the right thing will pop up, print it all up on campus and end up with piles of papers at home?  I used to do that at first, but then I learned a few tips and became more effective at getting papers and saved a lot of time.

  • I use the free application ReadCube to organize my papers, and it automatically recommends a list of relevant papers based on my article library.  I can even form a list of articles that are most pertinent for my research project, and have readcube find relevant articles for me based on this list.  It does a pretty good job and I’ve found some surprisingly good papers because of it.  It keeps me up to date with the current findings in my field, so that I won’t have to do unnecessary experiments, and have a easier time when writing papers.
  • Did you know that you don’t have to be on campus to access papers?  All you have to do is set up a university proxy, which will allow you to surf the Internet as if you are on campus.  Your own university should have setup instructions.  (For a simple no hassle way, I just selected my university in the readcube app, and can now download articles anywhere I want without even having to log in to my school every time I want to see a paper.)
  • When I read an awesome paper, the best way to find more like it is to look at the authors’ other publications and the relevant citations.  Readcube enhances PDFs to makes this easy: a click on the author brings up all their previous publications. The in text citations are also hyperlinked.  As I read about an interesting finding, I just click on the citation right there to bring up the paper in question.  If it’s already in my library the paper will just pop up; if not, readcube automatically searched for the article and I can download it with a single click.  So fast and easy!
Organizing papers:

Once you find a paper, don’t just print it out, maybe read it, and forget about it.  Organize you papers so that when you need that info in the future, you’ll know just which paper to go to.  One of my thesis committee members was an incredible scientist and leader in my field; she would be able to cite facts and papers off the top of her head during seminars.  It was very impressive, and although I am unable to recall all of the previous findings from all the papers I’ve read, I was inspired to better organize the papers I read to help me remember their contents.  (If I just read papers and forgot what they were about in a week or so, why bother reading them in the first place!)

  • Most people organize papers into folders on their computer; this works, but when you want to find an old paper, you’ll likely spend some time sifting through folders on your computer.  By using reference management software, you can sort through papers easily and even create “playlists” of articles much like what itunes does for music.  The software I’ve used in the past are Papers, Mendeley, and Readcube.  (Endnote also can sort of organize papers, but it does a better job on citations than in organizing papers).  I’ve switched from one to the next until I found readcube, which I fell in love with.  Unlike the other programs, I didn’t have to pay for readcube, I can take notes and highlight passages, and I can use it on my PC as well as my mac.  I also liked that readcube has a pretty user interface and has cool options like Recommendations and enhanced PDFs.  (In fact I like readcube so much I joined their team as community builder to help make it into an even better app).
  • After you read a paper, summarize the main points so that you can easily see what each paper is about when you go back to it.  This is something that’s better done in reference manager than say… on printed paper, or in your own organizational folders.  Readcube and other apps lets you write notes on whole articles as well as on specific bits in the papers, so you can remember what that paper was about at a glance.
  • Organize your papers further by topic, by project, by experimental method etc. to better organize your thoughts.  You can do this with folders on your computer by creating multiple copies of the same article, or you can drag and drop articles into lists in a reference manager (much faster option).  Doing this helped me organize my thoughts when writing grants and publications, and made it easy to cite the right papers.
Read in a smart way:

We are not supposed to read a whole paper word by word from beginning to end.  Here I’ll mention how I effectively read papers.

  • Not all sections of an article are equally important.  I wrote another post about this so I won’t go into details here.  It would be interesting to get everyone’s opinions on what you think the most important part of a paper is.
  • Readcube (comes to the rescue again!) by providing an interactive way to read papers through their enhanced PDF function.  You may have seen this from the web reader on  As I mentioned above, all the citations and authors are hyperlinked in the text, so you can jump immediately to a reference when something exciting or confusing catches your eyes.   The enhanced PDF also organizes all the other resources linked to the paper right at the top bar so you can see supplementary data, editor’s comments and whatever else with a click of a button.

Feel free to comment on this post.  I’d love to hear your own tips and techniques in reading articles.


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