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Early Career Researchers Talk #365papers

I’ve written before about my aspirational, if mercurial, commitment to #365papers — the social media challenge to read one peer-reviewed paper a day. I first attempted the #365papers reading habit three years ago, when I was a new mom returning to my PhD after maternity leave. All of the blogs that I read about #365papers in that new-parent-haze were written by more established folks — professors, who maybe didn’t have tenure yet, but were clearly farther along in their careers. In the years since, I’ve noticed that I was not alone as a grad student wading into #365papers. There are many of us, early (or earlier) career ecologists attempting to read more deeply and more broadly through a paper-a-day. And while I often use this space to blog about some of my favorite papers from my #365papers readings, I rarely reflect on the actual reading part of the equation. So, I reached out to another early career #365papers enthusiast to talk about reading as a grad student, the “luxuries” of being early career, and the daily grind of our #365papers habits. This is a conversation between myself and Dr. Chelsea Little — Chelsea is a community and ecosystems ecologist, who recently defended her PhD at University of Zurich. She’s offered her expert opinion for PLoS Ecology before and she wrote about her year of #365papers on her personal blog in December 2018. Our emails have been edited and reordered for clarity.


Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie: How did you first get into #365papers?

Chelsea J. Little: I think I generally saw the tag on Twitter, and kind of wondered what it was all about. Eventually I found some of the earlier blog posts from you, Jacquelyn Gill, Meghan Duffy & Anne Jefferson. So I guess the idea just slowly permeated my academic Twitter world until I wanted to try it. At some point I knew, with a sinking feeling, that a lot of people were much better-read than I was. I never had a journal club to be part of in either my bachelors or masters (or maybe there’s one I could have joined but I just didn’t realize it…. there’s a lot of things that we don’t figure out as students), and I never had a course reading classic papers, for example. So when colleagues or supervisors would refer to papers offhand by the authors’ names in conversation, I felt bad because just couldn’t do that. I didn’t have a deep well of reading to draw on, and even things that I read, I usually didn’t remember who had written them. So I think part of the reason the #365papers idea intrigued me was I saw it as a way I could remedy that.

Chelsea reading on the roof of her institute (“we’ve been in a crazy warm snap and I’ve used reading as an excuse to get out of my office for short periods of time!!”)

CMM: I get the same in-over-my-depth feeling when authors’ last names are tossed around as stand-ins for papers or concepts or experiments. Even now, I can recognize a name from reading, and know that I know who it is, but not immediately be able to connect it to a specific paper. I don’t know if #365papers is making this better or worse, because it’s definitely exposed me to A LOT MORE NAMES! It has, however, made me feel less imposter-y — because if I don’t know a name, it’s not because I’m not well read.

CJL: Yes! I love your comment about “imposter-y” ness. That is so right on.

CMM: When and where do you read your paper a day? What does your reading routine look like — or sound or smell or taste or feel like? (Mine usually tastes like chai.)

CJL: I actually don’t really have a reading routine in terms of time. I tried to institute one, but I find that it depends a lot on what else I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a nice way to start the day; sometimes it’s a nice thing to do after lunch. Over the year of doing it, I have learned that it’s a good thing to slot into my intermediate-quality time. I don’t want to use my most productive/creative time for reading, I want to use it for writing or stats usually. But it’s also not a good thing to do when you are really tired, because if you can’t focus or retain anything, then there’s no point! So I leave the time when I’m dragging for smaller administrative tasks. Sometimes I read on the train or bus, which helps me leave the office relatively early without feeling too guilty.

CMM: I don’t have a designated reading time either. I like moving from my desk to a couch or comfy chair for reading time and settling in with a mug of tea and a nice snack. Reading breaks definitely help during long coding/analysis/figure-making days!

CJL: I usually have a tea or coffee while I’m reading too. I prefer to read on paper (printed out), and use a highlighter to mark interesting or relevant parts of the paper, or places where I have questions or am confused.

CMM: I read on my laptop in Papers, and mark up/highlight on the screen.

CJL: I have a little after-reading routine: I post the paper on Twitter, tagging the authors if they have accounts; I fill out the info in my tracking spreadsheet and I copy my notes into Evernote, writing a little summary of what I found interesting or relevant, and then going through the places that I had highlighted and deciding whether they merit a note that I will be able to refer back to.

Tracking #365papers — Caitlin’s spreadsheet (top) and the columns from Chelsea’s spreadsheet

CMM: I so am impressed with your routine of summarizing and tracking! I often let #365papers tweets pile up for a week or two at a time before I go back and enter them into my spreadsheet in chunks. I kind of like that my laziness allows me to return to these tweets days/weeks later — it’s weirdly fun to revisit my reading patterns this way. Sometimes I find out that I’ve been on an alpine plant jag, or gone down a paleo deep dive (almost a pun?), or just been all over the place.

CJL: Not having a set routine probably does make it less likely that I fit it in, but I try to really prioritize it. One thing is that I have definitely gotten faster at reading papers. I still try to read them deeply, but I have gotten a little more efficient at doing so, so it’s easier to find the time. The other thing I’ve found is that it’s great to mix up what you are doing in a day, so if you really need to write, for example, taking a break to read a paper probably won’t hold you back – it will give your brain a rest from what it was focusing on, and then you can get back to it. Noticing that has made me more confident about being able to take that hour, or whatever, and not feel like it is coming at the cost of something else I’m doing. Maybe that’s a luxury you only have as an ECR (Early Career Researcher) though 🙂

CMM: Yes, our ability to take a reading hour without sacrificing something else is a funny “luxury” unique to ECR. As our careers progress, do you think #365papers is sustainable?

CJL: I’m not sure it’s sustainable, but I hope so. It feels different to read a little bit every day, compared to having a period where you are reading a lot, all day. When I think back to the start of my PhD, I was new to this discipline and topic so I felt like I had to read a lot. And I hated it! I had this huge stack of papers that felt like a chore, and to be honest I didn’t have enough background yet to really get a lot out of them. Now I’m re-reading some of the same papers and I get so much more the second time through. Part of that is because I now have four years of relevant research under my belt, but I really think that part of it is the mental approach. As I think of moving on to a postdoc soon, I will definitely have to do a lot of reading to get up to speed on a new project. But I will try to do that with one or two papers a day, not sitting down with a mountain of literature and feeling like I can’t start the fun, creative part of research until I get through it all! So I think this approach *could* be more sustainable than the alternative, but it will take some deliberate willpower to keep up as I get busier and busier, I guess.

Caitlin reads at her desk

CMM: Yes! Your feeling about reading a little each day resonates with me! My postdoc is in a totally new field from my PhD, but I think #365papers made that transition feel a lot less daunting. I’m 18 months in and I still sometimes read a paper and think, “How have I missed this? I should have read that before I started my postdoc — or before I wrote my postdoc proposal!” But, I think that’s probably true even for people who didn’t switch sub-disciplines.

CJL: A question for you: how have your bosses and colleagues reacted to you doing all this reading? Do they wish you’d spend the time on something else, or see it as good, or a mix? Do they express jealousy that you can find the time to read?

CMM: Well, since Jacquelyn Gill is my postdoc advisor, sometimes I feel like #365papers is a little performative — I know she’s reading my tweets! It’s funny, the hashtag is a way for us to check in when I’m working remotely. It’s almost a secret handshake — she probably knows that I’m getting a lit review or a certain grant proposal together just based on the papers that I’m tweeting. I think that my other colleagues who aren’t as familiar with #365papers are obliviously supportive — I’m not sure if my PhD advisor noticed the difference when I started reading daily. I do think it made me a better writer — both in terms of the syntax and style, but also because I can call up citations so much more easily. Have you seen the impact of daily reading in your writing?

CJL: Hmmm, how has it impacted my writing. I do think it’s easier to find sources, but it does not remove that part of writing when you say something, feeling instinctively that it’s proven and true, and then go citation- searching and end up spending three hours trying to find a paper about this thing, and half the time delete the sentence later anyway… 🙂 I think one thing is that it’s great to be exposed to different formats and writing styles. You definitely read some papers and think, wow, that is really well written. It has given me some ideas to try, in terms of things like how to really clearly present hypotheses, or how to synthesize. I think it has also given me confidence that there are many ways to write and you don’t have to stress so much that your manuscript fits some single standard of academic writing. When I started writing papers, I thought I had to be much more formal and cram tons of information in. Now I focus more on just trying to tell the story in a way that is easy to follow – which can vary a lot from paper to paper depending on what that story is – and I realize that academic writing doesn’t have to be boring, sanitized, and overly formal. You of course see examples of poor writing too, but those are also instructive! In that sense, reading a lot probably makes me a much better reviewer, too.

CMM: How do you find the papers that you read? Are you methodical or opportunistic? Do you have favorite journals? Google scholar alerts?

CJL: Most of the papers I find right now are through table of contents alerts, but I also see thing on Twitter and I have a couple of Google Scholar alerts. I’d love to learn how to use those better; I think it’s a challenge because you want to pick a term that is not too specific (otherwise you might miss something) but also not too general (otherwise it will bring back too much stuff). I have one for my study taxa, and since it’s not a super common research animal that works pretty well and picks up things in smaller journals that I might not find. When I’m working intensely on a paper or project, I of course find things by searching or by following reference trails, or by colleagues/co-authors recommending them. So it kind of depends what phase I’m in. But I think in a lot of ways the most exciting is to get a great journal table of contents and see exciting papers, that may or may not be related to my work at all, and add them to the to- read pile! (My to-read tag in Evernote has 394 papers in it and grows almost every day, so yeah, I guess I better keep reading…)

CMM: I find so many papers through twitter — but I am doing a horrible job of tracking where I first hear about a paper. I started using IFTTT so that if I retweet a paper with #ToReadPile it will automatically get put into my ToDoist Reading List. My google scholar alerts are just my field site (Acadia National Park) and a couple authors. I used to have one for ‘phenology’ but that was out of control! My To Read Pile sounds like yours — I have eight #ToReadPile tweets in my ToDoist (I try to organize & pull these into Papers about every week); my Papers ‘#365papers 2019’ collection is at 84 unread (and there many more to roll over from ‘#365papers 2018’).

Chelsea’s train reading on the way to a long ski weekend in Seiser Alm, Italy.

CJL: Do you have many conversations on Twitter based on your posting of these papers? For me it’s not so much, but there have been a few times when an author has replied or someone else has commented about reading the same paper, and this has been a neat way to virtually meet new people that I might not have connected to otherwise. I think that could also be a big benefit to ECR’s; even if it doesn’t happen so often, just a few solid instances like that can make you feel like part of a community.

CMM: I’ve had a couple twitter conversations with authors. I think more frequently other people have asked me about a paper or asked for a link to it. I’m not great at remembering to add authors’ twitter handles to my #365papers (and sometimes I just don’t know the authors are on twitter), but I’ve found that when I do it almost always sparks a nice interaction. I love reading papers that are outside of my field but written by my friends or fellow grad students in my department. It’s a nice break from my own work, and it’s such a simple way of supporting the people around you.

CJL: I also love reading outside my research area, and this is one of my favorite things about the challenge. If I am reading five papers a week, it’s totally reasonable that one or two are kind of far-flung, unless I’m working really intensely on a project. I have pretty broad interests. I am an ecologist, but I got my masters in evolutionary biology; after a gruleing insect-rearing experiment in my second semester, I decided that the lab aspect of evolution wasn’t for me for day-to- day work, but I completely love reading evolutionary research. I’m also really interested in conservation even though none of my coursework or research is explicitly about conservation biology, and I like learning and thinking about how the ecology and conservation biology fields do or do not interface well with the social and strategic aspects of different conservation priorities.

CMM: What is your advice for other ECR folks interested in #365papers?

CJL: I’d really suggest the challenge to people starting a PhD. So many people I talk to have similar feelings about that stage where you are just absorbing background and reading and reading and reading: in some ways it’s boring. Even if the science you are reading about isn’t boring, the monotony is really tough and you don’t get that feeling of DOING something. Maybe the #365papers approach could make it a little more fun and provide some structure. If you check off that one paper a day, you then have permission to do something else with some of the rest of your time, but you know you’re still reading a lot of papers and not slacking off.

CMM: Thanks for this super-thoughtful reflection on #365papers — I’ve really enjoyed writing about reading with you!

Follow Chelsea on twitter: @ChelskiLittle


Banner image: photo by Terry Kearney, Creative Commons

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