No time to read? So what…

By Joern Fischer

With the year coming to an end, it’s a good time to reflect, and think about what to do differently next year. For some of us, myself included, that includes “doing a better job of keeping on top of the literature”. Many of us feel perpetually “behind” in our reading, with so much important new stuff coming out all the time.

Just to counter-balance my own resolution (that I ought to read more), here’s a couple of arguments against reading more. First of all, most of the stuff we read is in fact not important at all, but rather trivial. Most new science is, essentially, boring. Major insights are rare, and those, indeed, are worth reading. So perhaps it’s more about having an awareness of what’s around us (in terms of new science), but then picking up only the bits actually worth pursuing. Those, quite possibly, are no greater in volume than they were years ago.

Second, I’d argue that — somewhat counter-intuitively — even reading can be one of those “busy” activities that keep us from doing what is actually important — namely thinking and reflecting. Especially when we read under pressure, we don’t use reading as an activity to reflect, but rather as busy-must-do tasks. By ticking off readings at fast pace there’s a good chance we won’t actually process any of it deeply enough to truly expand our own horizons. That, in turn, would suggest that in some cases it might be good to read less rather than more… (sounds like a convenient excuse anyway! 🙂 )

Anyway, the point is to recognise that the ultimate goal of insight is only partly reachable by the proximate goal of more reading. More fundamentally, it’s important to create time and space to reflect about all the various bits of information that do reach us all the time. A lack of information (e.g. from a lack of reading) is very unlikely to be the stumbling block for greater human wisdom. A lack of time taken to reflect on that information, on the other hand, quite possibly could be a major stumbling block for many modern-era academics.

I have no idea how to balance all this either. So one of my new year’s resolutions simply is to keep trying to find that balance: between “doing” and reflecting — to make sure that what I ultimately do embark on has a chance of being worthwhile.


7 thoughts on “No time to read? So what…

  1. I fully agree with you Joern, including not being sure how to sort out important, calm reading from must-do sessions. I cannot even keep pace with alerts…
    Lately though I found some hope: I read good, inspiring stuff when I’m chest-deep into teaching; this fact also amuses me because it contradicts the usual line of “teaching time is lost time for research”.

  2. Happy New Year to you Joern
    I couldn’t agree more with you on the importance of reflection. Unfortunately, ‘doing’ (reading, publishing etc) is more measurable/quantifiable that ‘reflecting on doing’. And the activities that we can measure are things that normally win our precious time when we divide it up.
    A scientist friend of mine once told me that all the important science he did was in the first half hour of his working day when he would wander through his experimental plots (he was an agronomist) and reflect on what he was doing, what he had achieved and what he might try now. The rest of it, he told me, is simply the doing.
    May your year be full of fruitful reflection.

  3. I can honestly say I had more insightful thoughts about what I’m doing research-wise over the Christmas holidays, while gardening, than the entire time I’ve been at work as a postdoc, constantly trying to do 40 things at once :S

  4. Thanks for this interesting post! Maybe I am a bit more traditionalist – I still believe that if one want to know well a certain field then it is necessary to read … everything (small, big, doesn`t matter) s/he can access in terms of science in that field – at least at the early years of the career. It is about being ’embedded’ in a given field. Same with fieldwork: never enough:) I still greatly enjoy to read amphibian landscape ecology papers although I suspect what kinds of results they can bring.

  5. I have the same gut feeling as you, Tibi, but I find the problem to be that I have so many (scholarly) interests, and interest in merging them, that I could read 100% of the time and not “catch up”. While to an extent reading more and feeling more insignificant and getting the scope of one’s own ignorance is an important process, I think it can also be immobilizing. And insofar as reading keeps you logistically or mentally away from composing and conducting your own work, it can become a huge hindrance. After all, if you could read all the time and still not be doing enough, then where you draw the line between “too much” and “enough” seems to be defined very personally. That is, how much is it worth raising spending, say, 20% of your time to stay current on 10% of all the relevant current literature, versus 40% (nearly half your time) to read 20% (still a minority) of the current lit? Or 100% of your time to read half? 🙂

    Of course, my next impulse is to read enough to be “representative”, or to start getting the gist of all the new ideas and skipping studies that are mainly reiterative, but I find the more I read the *more* new ideas I find that are out there, and rarely do I feel like I’m achieving significant coverage of all the “important” or new ones…

  6. Hi Jahi – I agree with you, and cannot be against. I personally like to read a lot and like to think a lot, and these things should be kind of conplementary.

    Plus, it is probably that an established professor is in the ‘K’ phase of the career, when he knows everytihng anyway. Joern does not mention how many papers he indeed read in his life:) And it is enough to read your comments to see that you also have some background in reading…

    I highly suggest for PhD students to read, work on the field and reflect. Other way, we may probably need to re-define the classical sense of a PhD…and dillute it to a level of a kind of post highschool, university something where the student smell this, smell that but ‘ex omnibus aliquis, ex toto nihil’ know a bit of this, a bit of that but nothing well.

    I recall that I developed in Romania, where reading a lot and knowing your field inside out was (and still is) a value, almost diagnostical, for an ecolgist (that is, you will not receive a PhD in the group of beetle x, till you dont showed that: (i) you know them extraordinally well – I refer to the species from Romania, you need to have them in yous small finger, if you want to be taken seriously by other colleagues from my country. (ii) you know the existing data on distribution of your species in your country, who done what. Hard work, many publications in small museums. But, you go and check them…, (iii) you should also have a glimpse into the history and current status of the research (ecoiogy, physiology … everything!) of that group at international level.

    I recognize the huge trap of being too specialized. The answer is to build some resilience in your developement. Find the way how to do this, it is probably no one general guide how to do this, each of us should find its way. But again, to me, if you have a PhD in something, you should know that something,

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