Starting out research in a new field or topic, the amount of papers can be really overwhelming. So here are some tips and strategies I’m using to try to get the most out of things without getting overwhelmed.

note: second video, with more on taking notes added 04/28/22

reference management

  • save references in your reference manager then you can close the browser tab and not have bazillions of tabs open!
  • in my reference manager (I use Mendeley – others are Zotero, Pages, EndNote, etc.), I organize references for easy searchingr
    • make tabs and sub-tabs for various concepts, tabs for techniques, tab for software papers, etc.
  • make sure the metadata for the articles loads properly – may need to use the search by DOI or hyperlink to make sure it is (in Mendeley there’s a little magnifying glass you can check on next to it)

starting out & staying up to date

  • when first starting…
    • find very recent review articles to get a sense where the field currently stands, then go and read the primary literature cited in the reviews
    • ask people in the field if they have suggestions of key papers and/or jot down any they mention in passing
  • “forever”
    • set up alerts for key terms/topics/authors, etc.
    • bookmark & regularly check new articles listed on websites of key publications in your field
    • check where papers you read have been cited to see any “updates”  (e.g. using tool like scite)

make quick notes with overviews of each paper you can take more detailed notes on later

for each article, in my electronic notes I write down…

  • citation info: make sure to include:
    • 1st and last author(s)* 
      • *corresponding authors – the people whose lab(s) the work was done in and who you should contact if you have questions
    • hyperlink
    • note: this is in addition to having the reference stored in my reference manager (I use Mendeley)
  • experiment info:
    • experimental techniques used
    • key findings
    • anything you know was later disputed, expanded up, changed, etc. (e.g. Was one of the findings later shown to be an artifact? Was a method step later omitted or modified?)
  • any specific reasons you chose to save the article (especially if it’s not clear from the title) – Did someone recommend it to you? Does it introduce some new technique or software?

when reading articles 1st pass through 

  • minimize distractions
  • try to get through it once first before going down any rabbit holes following links, etc.
    • remember that you can always come back (especially if you’ve made things easy to find), so…
      • avoid the urge to highlight everything – highlight key terms & short phrases when reading, then go back and take more detailed notes on those things you highlighted
      • avoid the urge to go to every reference right away – instead do a quick check to see what they’re referencing and highlight number/name to add to saved references later – potentially with a note on the citation context

when reading articles again and/or in more depth

  • in addition to the basics (citation info, experiment types, etc.)…
    • start by writing 1-2 sentences summarizing key findings & your impression
    • how strong was the evidence & what were the strongest/weakest points
    • when applicable – how does it potentially fit into your research
    • take more detailed notes on experiments that might directly impact your work &/or change your thinking

more about reference management:

more about reading scientific papers:


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