Why is reading so hard?


One of the things that comes with being a grad student/scientist/engineer/etc. is that there is a TON of reading to do.  Sometimes it’s for classes, or for keeping on top of your field, or for writing the intro or background section of your thesis/paper/report/application.  And you’re not just reading for fun.  You’re reading to:

  • understand what you’re reading (okay, duh)
  • figure out how it fits in with other research
  • figure out how it fits in with your research
  • be able to explain it your own words
  • remember it later, when it inevitably becomes relevant to you again (tougher than it sounds)

I’m constantly struggling with how to do all of these things effectively, and have yet to figure out the secret, the magic bullet, the holy grail of academic journal reading.  Here are some disparate theories or thoughts that I’ve cobbled together on the subject of reading.

Writing is key

I guess different people have different learning styles:  some people are auditory learners, visual learners or tactile learners (to name a few).  I think I would fall into the category of a writing, or possibly speaking, learner.  I’ve found that if I just read and highlight the crap out of a paper, I may  think I understand it at the time, but start losing it immediately after finishing it.  It’s really annoying.  I want to just sit in my comfy chair with a highlighter in one hand, and a cup of coffee beside me.  I want it to be fun and painless.  Like watching a movie… about science… with a ton of equations… ugh.  Okay, after trying and failing the “relaxing” method too many times, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am just wasting my time.  If I don’t invest a bit more effort into typing my little synopsis as I go, then I am going to just have to go back and re-read it anyway.  Which is an even bigger pain.

Figuring out the figures

This is a tip that has pretty much been pounded into my head since starting grad school. (curiously, I don’t remember anyone telling me this in undergrad – maybe we didn’t read many papers back then?)  Understand the figures.  In fact, go through the paper and try to understand the figures before tackling the text.

Non-linear reading

This one kind of goes with figuring out the figures.  Most people I’ve talked to do not recommend reading a paper straight through.  Read the title (obvs!), the abstract, the intro, and the conclusion to get the gist of what the paper is about.  That sort of “primes” your brain for what to look for in the paper.  Additionally, I think it’s a good idea to scan the section titles so you know the structure of the paper before reading it.  And the great thing is, depending on what you need that paper for, you might be able to get by with just reading the intro and conclusion, and looking at the figures.  Although knowing when that’s enough can be tricky.

BFM (brute force method)

As time goes on, and as I read more papers on fin whale acoustics, I’ve found that they do get easier.  I mean, incrementally.  It still takes me a minimum of two or three hours to go through a paper carefully (and often more), but I find that I get more out of it now than I used to.  Here’s the caveat though:  this is only true for baleen whale acoustics.  Once I veer away from that very specific topic, the difficulty level rises again.  I think that I really get the most out of papers where I recognize a lot of what they’re saying from other papers.  Not that it’s a big revelation, really, I think it’s basic learning theory:  if you’ve built up a sort of “architecture” about a subject, then you’re not re-learning whole body of knowledge when you read about a related topic.  You’re actually just incrementally adding to what you already know.  Not to mention you’re learning the jargon as you go – those words and phrases that are short-cuts for people in the field, but completely confusing to those that are not.

So what?  Well, I think it really means that there really is no magic bullet, at least for me.  I just have to slog through a certain number of papers until I get the gist of the subject matter.  And I have to write notes about what I’m reading.

I’m curious as to whether others have similar experiences…  although I suspect some lucky folks can skip the writing/summarizing altogether and just read it and get it.  And if that’s you:  please tell me your secret!



Reading and writing and super-mussels

Don’t tell me how to interpret your results!

super musselsThe other day, I stumbled on a climate change skeptic website while doing research for my ocean acidification post.  This ‘skeptic’ article included a summary of a peer reviewed article by a prominent scientist on the effect of an acidic ocean environment on mussels near deep sea hydrothermal vents.  The summary included this description of the results of that paper:

[…] there is ample reason to believe that even the worst case atmospheric CO2-induced acidification scenario that can possibly be conceived would not prove a major detriment to most calcifying sea life. Consequently, what will likely happen in the real world should be no problem at all […]

Well, that’s amazing!  If that was the only summary I read, I might be led to believe a few things:

  1. There is rock-solid evidence indicating that ocean acidification, though it may be happening, is totally not a big deal.  Dude, look at those mussels!  They are doing great!
  2. The mussels adapted to environments even more acidic than the most dire projections by acidification “alarmists”, and
  3. the scientist who did that work is well-known and well-respected, and is clearly a climate change skeptic also.

I was curious, so I looked up the original paper to learn more [1]. This is the first sentence of the abstract by Tunnicliffe et al. (2009):

Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing ocean acidification, compromising the ability of some marine organisms to build and maintain support structures as the equilibrium state of inorganic carbon moves away from calcium carbonate.

Seems pretty reasonable to me.  Carbon dioxide is increasing, the ocean is becoming more acidic, and marine organisms are having a hard time because of it.  So I read on:

Few marine organisms tolerate conditions where ocean pH falls significantly below today’s value of about 8.1 and aragonite and calcite saturation values below 1.

So far they don’t seem very “skeptical” of ocean acidification.  Reading further:

We identify four-decade-old mussels, but suggest that the mussels can survive for so long only if their protective shell covering remains intact: crabs that could expose the underlying calcium carbonate to dissolution are absent from this setting.  The mussels’ ability to precipitate shells in such low-pH conditions is remarkable.  Nevertheless, the vulnerability of molluscs to predators is likely to increase in a future ocean with low pH.

Woah.  It actually seems like she’s found this remarkable organism who lives in a unique environment that can survive massively acidic conditions.  But she is NOT extrapolating these results to other types of calcifying organisms.  And in fact, even these tough mussels do in fact suffer from the increased acidity – they have far thinner shells than nearby mussels living in less acidic waters, which leaves them more vulnerable to predators.  If you read on in the paper, you learn that part of the reason these mussels have such incredible survival rates in these conditions is due to a lack of predators:  typical predators in nearby (less-acidic) waters are crabs, but the crabs can’t survive in the very low pH environment.

All this got me thinking about the differences that exist between authors’ intended message and how their work is subsequently portrayed and disseminated to the public.  What was Dr. Tunnicliffe trying to communicate?

I see a couple of different problems:  1)  The language used in peer reviewed literature is technical and often uses a lot of field-specific jargon, and 2) Access to peer-reviewed scientific articles is limited (by cost, mainly).

Easy on the jargon!

Was the “climate skeptic” summary accurate?  Was my summary accurate?  Were we both wrong?

I thought Dr. Tunnicliffe’s article was really well-written, clear, and informative, and even so – look how easy it was to subjectively interpret and share her results!

A lot of the time, scientists write peer-reviewed articles for each other.  That’s not to say they’re intentionally being exclusive – it just makes sense to try to aim their writing to other scientists who will use the work as a jumping-off point.  And, as a reader, if you’re not sufficiently familiar with a particular field, it can be difficult to glean the relevant information and to parse the jargon, particularly when you don’t have several hours to critically read it.

So what’s a scientist to do?  I really would like to know. It’s important to have rigorous and peer-reviewed documentation of your research so that others in the same field can build on or question your findings. That’s basically what makes science tick.  But what if authors could also write summaries intended for non-scientists (or scientists in other fields, for that matter) to accompany their more technical papers.  Like Cliff’s Notes of their own work.  So my blog readers could look up the Tunnicliffe paper and easily see for themselves whether my simpleminded take on it was total hooey.  (it might very well be…)

If a scientist publishes a peer-reviewed article and no one reads it, is it really science?

Of course, I think I’d be remiss not to mention that I am one of those privileged few who have almost unrestricted access to any peer-reviewed literature I care to get my grubby hands one – while I’m a student at a large American university, I can log into my school’s library website and look at anything I want instantly.  And if I can’t get it instantly in PDF format, I can ask the library to order it in for me, free of charge.  So without even getting to the fact that scientific papers are dense and difficult to synthesize, they’re simply off-limits to almost everyone unless they’re willing to fork over the cash.  For example, the Tunnicliffe paper on the Nature Geoscience website costs $32.  Whew.

And we wonder why there’s a mistrust of the scientific community:  we write as cryptically as we can (hey – in scientists’ defense – getting all those technical details into a reasonable number of pages for publication is not easy, people), and then we publish in peer-reviewed journals that charge people $30-40 for the PDF.  Ugh.

But!  The peer-review system is important in maintaining a certain standard and ensuring the credibility of published results.  I don’t know how to change that.  So:  until we figure out how to make peer-reviewed articles more open, maybe some “published-article Cliff’s Notes” or “cheat sheets” wouldn’t hurt.  (I guess now that I’ve said it, it would be shameful of me NOT to do it for my own paper.  At least I’ve only got the one.)

I’d love to have feedback!  It would help me figure out if anyone is thinking the same thing or if I’m totally out to lunch on this one.


More on open access:


Some interesting thoughts on the future of the scientific journal industry (think social media-style):



[1]  Tunnicliffe, Verena, et al. “Survival of mussels in extremely acidic waters on a submarine volcano.Nature Geoscience 2.5 (2009): 344-348.


I always liked the Goodreader iPad app. It was one of the first ones I ever got, and is the best for reading journal articles. It’s always been great, but over time, the few issues that I had have been resolved, and the new updates always have something unexpected, but awesome. A few updates ago they added Dropbox access. I was onboard immediately.

One thing that bugged me until just today was that I found it a bit tedious to make annotations. Getting to the annotation/notes menu took a couple of steps, and it just seemed like it was not quite as good as paper and a pen and highlighter. I think I can now say that the app has finally reached the point where it’s just as easy for me as paper. I finally just grabbed the latest update, and it’s fantastic. There are now file tabs, a new and improved page slider, and my favorite – the new side menu! It makes highlighting and taking notes so fast.

Here’s an example of an annotated page from GoodReader: