Note: This article was first written in Chinese on February 6, 2016 and translated into English in 2021.
I remember when I first entered grad school, I was talking to a mentor about research ideas. Whenever I brought up an idea, she would immediately recommend a relevant piece of literature for me to read. At one point, I was so impressed that I couldn't help but remark, “You’re like a walking encyclopedia! No matter what research topic I mention, you can always suggest a related article!” My mentor smiled and said, “Well that’s because I’ve been in academia for 20 years. When you reach this point of your academic career, there’s no doubt that you'll be even better than me.”
Back then, I thought reaching a point like my mentor was far beyond me. But just a few months ago, I had two friends reach out to me to discuss their future research ideas, and they both said to me, "You're practically a walking encyclopedia. I could ask you anything, and you’d immediately recommend an article related to my idea." At that moment, I was reminded of myself when I just entered grad school and I realized that, since then, I had come a long way. Needless to say, I still have a long way to go compared to my mentor, but I am willing to allow myself more time to improve. So, if you feel like a layman right now, it is no big deal; we have all been there before. As long as you continue to grind toward your goal, you will eventually get there.
Alright, let’s dive into today’s topic. I would like to share with you three things I have learned:
1. How does one become a “walking research database”?
1A. Read extensively. I am not sure about the sciences or humanities, but in social sciences, reading extensively is extremely important. My advisor once suggested that I should read the abstract of every new article from the best journals in our field (such as American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, and Demography). Even if those papers do not belong to our particular area of research, it helps us get a sense of what people in the discipline are studying at the moment.
So, how can you read extensively?
1B. Turn it into a habit, just like how you check Facebook, Newsfeed, or Twitter every day. My advantage is that I am very interested in my research field, so reading papers on marriage and family feels almost like reading a gossip magazine. For me, reading the abstract, or even the full text, does not feel like a chore in any way. To tell the truth, I find reading papers in English much more enjoyable than reading English novels.
My advisor reads the New York Times every day to keep up with current events. Many New York Times articles will cite the latest literature, so if they are related to our research areas, we can also find the original journal articles to read. Several of the papers cited in my dissertation were mentioned in the New York Times articles that my advisor had forwarded to me.
1C. I am subscribed to various academic journals that interest me or are relevant to my research (use Journal of Marriage and Family as an example, "Get content alerts" as shown in the image below).
Every time new articles are released, I receive an email notification. For general interest journals that are not closely related to my research areas, I scan the title of each paper and read it in full if I am interested. For journals that are directly related to my research areas (such as Journal of Marriage and Family), I will read the abstract of every article. The goal of this is to give my brain at least a vague impression of the research that is out there. If I ever need a particular piece of literature, that vague memory of the paper will resurface. I will then probably know which keywords to search for or which journals are more likely to have relevant literature.
I also have many friends who follow and set up alerts for certain scholars or journal articles on Google Scholar. If those scholars publish a new article or if an article they follow is cited, they will automatically receive email notifications. If you've already published a paper, you can also set up a Google Scholar alert for it, and you will receive alerts about other published works that cite your paper.
2. If you have come up with a research question, how can you quickly find relevant literature?
To answer that question, Google Scholar is a key resource.
2A. I typically search for relevant keywords in Google Scholar to find relevant articles. After I have read a relevant paper, I look at the references in that paper and read the associated literature. My mentor told me that this is called “searching backward.” That is, finding relevant literature as well as older or more classic literature.
In addition, it is helpful to “search forward.” I will use my paper as an example (please excuse my lack of humility in doing so). On Google Scholar, each paper has a “cited by” in the lower left corner (see image below). If you click on “cited by,” you will see all of the new literature that has cited the work originally retrieved in your search. This way, you can get an idea of what progress has been made in academia since that paper was published.
2B. In sociology, we have a journal called Annual Review of Sociology. It's full of literature reviews written by experts on specific topics. I usually use the “Advanced search” function on Google Scholar to directly check whether this journal has published a literature review relevant to my research topic (see image below). If there is, I will most definitely read it, and then thoroughly look over its references.
In addition, Journal of Marriage and Family, for example, will have a decade review every ten years. Typically, family scholars will read all of the papers in this issue (e.g., The Decade in Review published in 2020). If you're new to a research area, you can start by looking at review-type articles from some of the top journals to quickly locate relevant literature.
2C. Another method I often use is to find famous scholars in the field who have published relevant works to my research question. I then read their CV or Google Scholar profile to identify relevant papers that I should read. For several of my papers, my mentor advised me to check out so-and-so’s work because they were experts in that area of research.
2D. Another strategy is to use analogies. For example, when I write a paper on China, I will look at how the same research question is studied in the US context. What theories have been used? What methodology?
In another example, I did a project on occupational segregation (update: this project led to a paper published in Social Science & Medicine), but I noticed that there was very little research on this topic. By comparison, there were a lot of studies on residential segregation in the US. Thus, I looked at those papers to see what theories the authors used to develop their hypotheses. I asked myself, “Can it be applied to occupational segregation?” (update: this exercise led me and my collaborator to write Section 2.1 of the paper "Segregation and Health: the missing links of occupation and immigrant status".) Of course, if there's not much literature on a research question, you have to ask yourself: is there something wrong with the question itself? To ensure the feasibility of your research question, it’s good to discuss with your advisor or more experienced researchers.
3. How can you read quickly and use relevant literature effectively?
3A. First of all, it is quite normal to take a long time reading papers when you are new to a research area. Be patient. You need to take time and settle in when you conduct research. As you become more familiar with a research area, you will start to read papers faster. For instance, all of the scholars studying a particular topic might apply the same theories. In this case, just give the basic introduction of the theory a quick skim, then skip it. In addition, the scholars may be using similar data, so just skim over the introduction of the data, and move on. Scholars of the same field may also use the same methods; if there is no innovation in terms of the method, then again, skim over it to find out what the method is, and move on. When you are reading your first introductory literature on a topic, you will most likely spend quite a bit of time reading it. As you become increasingly familiar with the body of literature, you can finish skimming a paper on that topic within a pretty short amount of time.
3B. You have to be clear about what your goal is when reading a paper. When I was writing my MA thesis, the topic I was studying had been examined in the US context, but my research was going to be focused on China. Thus, I read all of the papers that were examining the same issues in different societies (such as the US, Korea, and Spain). My purpose, in this case, was to see how the authors of these papers framed their unique contexts. In other words, what data they used didn’t matter to me, and every paper applied the same methodologies or major theories, so I simply skimmed these parts. With this method, it took me half an hour at most to read an article.
When I was writing my dissertation, I also used this strategy. After deciding on the method I would use, I found the best journal in my research area and searched up that method as a keyword to find all the studies in the last 10 years that applied the method. I skipped through the theories they applied and their conclusions, because it was irrelevant for my research purposes. After briefly skimming through the introduction to get an idea of their research questions, I skipped straight to their method sections and then looked at how they explained the results. Moreover, in the process of doing so, I learned about new developments in this method (update: this chapter of dissertation using multilevel dyad models has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family), which were not mentioned in classical statistics textbooks. Therefore, instead of using the basic method, I ended up using an advanced version of it, inspired by an article I read (despite the article’s research question being unrelated to mine). This is also a good time for you to think about your audience. For example, when I write a paper, my goal essentially is to submit my paper to the journal where I search for literature, so I look for relevant literature from that journal. In general, when you read literature, make sure to keep your paper in mind. Always ask yourself: How can this previous literature serve my research?
Similarly, there are certain papers where I only read the theory portion. For others, I only look at how they present the data they use. For some papers, I even choose to only read the introduction, because I want to know how scholars sell their research to quickly convince readers, “My research is really important!” If you are only reading the introduction part of a paper, the paper doesn’t necessarily need to be related to your research questions; the key is to read the papers that you like or are authored by your favorite scholars. Through reading these papers, you get to see how scholars frame and sell their research questions, which I think is an art in and of itself and requires conscious learning. There are a couple of scholars whom I really like, and I read every single one of their articles multiple times. As I read, I continuously take notice of how these scholars wrote and structured their articles. In other words, we should not simply take the literature for what it is—pages of words. Rather, we should read thoroughly. We should think while we are reading to really take it in. Only in this way can we benefit from our reading.
Meanwhile, in each of your papers, there are always several key articles that are cited repeatedly. They provide you with either theories or methods that you need to draw on. Other times, it could be a conclusion that you want to challenge in your paper. In short, these key articles are either examples for you to learn from, or it's a target, in which case you would want to challenge it. I usually read these papers very, very thoroughly. Read carefully from start to finish. Print it out. Keep it handy when I am writing my paper. Doing these steps will make that article almost as familiar as my own paper. When my friends asked me a question related to an article I cited often, I could immediately tell them the details such as which table in the article had the result they wanted to know about.
The strategies I have summarized above emerged through my own experience of reading journal articles. Hopefully it can be of help to you. If you have any good reading tips, you are also more than welcome to add on!
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "如何成为高效阅读的‘文献活字典’？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
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Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia