Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learning to read all over again

In my RNAi seminar, one of the instructors (they're both postdocs) noted that reading primary literature is a legitimately difficult thing. He expects us all to progress through several stages:

  1. Incomprehension. At first, it's difficult to even figure out what the authors are talking about, or trace the flow of experimental logic. Sometimes it just doesn't flow quite right; other times you get distracted by all the technical details you don't understand at all or don't understand the need for.

  2. Credulity. Once you learn how a few procedures work and start to understand why people do experiments in the order they do, you can finally pull out a paper's main substantive point from all the noise. At this point you'll believe whatever the paper says, because the graphs look pretty compelling, right?

  3. Savage nitpicking. Next you learn to ask methodological questions: why did the authors omit that control, or choose this particular method of statistical analysis? Why do the experiments in this order and not that order? Suddenly every paper looks like complete crap.

  4. Understanding. You begin to understand what is good and what is bad about a paper, and how it fits into the context of the field. This does require some familiarity with that context, but it's also a matter of general experience.

I think I'm more or less at the Credulity stage. I can figure out what a paper is about, though it takes me a while, and I get super excited about the key results. I've gotten to the point where I can read papers by myself, but I've never seen a paper picked apart, analyzed, and criticized in any detail where I could actually follow the conversation (this is hard in high school). So I think I'll be needing professional help, as it were, to move beyond Credulity.

(I might have gone a little bit overboard with the paper-reading classes for this semester, though. I added it up and I think I'm going to be reading 6-8 papers a week, or about one per day. Wow.)

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