Whether you are a budding scientist or a well-seasoned expert, we can all relate to the time when our procrastination has failed to stave off the inevitable literature search. After rearranging your desk, burning through a season of Weeds, and maybe even filling in your lab notebook to feel (somewhat) productive, your Chipotle burrito bowl is now rapidly approaching an unsatisfying room-temperature condition, and the soft glow of an empty PubMed search box is lying in wait, ready to engulf your hopes of a quick and easy search.
The fact is scientific literature has always been and will always be difficult to read. Even tenured professors have been documented squirming in their chair when reading journals outside their domain of expertise. The cryptic language of academia is fuzzy, at best, but can be unintelligible at worst. When you are utterly lost, our friends over at Ph.D. Comics have some humorous interpretations, but even they can’t decipher why aliquots of tarophil induce rapid conjunctification in Type 2a Plasmoids. So, is it time to throw our laptop across the room? Or is there a less violent path to publishable enlightenment?
Luckily, there IS a better way! Presented below is Part 1 of an overall strategy for successfully completing any and all literature searches (your mileage may vary). With the help of this step-by-step guide, you can reduce the time and energy you spend finding the answers to your scientific questions. Understanding the ebb and flow of journal articles will help you move from one stage to the next without wasting time. You can then quickly return to the things you enjoy most, like stocking reagents, filling 96-well plates, and bothering your mentor.
“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Before typing a single character into your internet browser, you need a clear vision of the research question you are trying to answer. Take a moment, and think critically about your question… Now write it down. You can open a new page in your notebook, pull out a stack of Post-Its, or open a new document in Word, whichever you prefer, but the theme of the day is to write everything down. Regardless of how great your memory is, tying your objective down with something tangible will make it more achievable. Countless research questions have been lost in foggy methods section, and a hard copy of your question will serve as a beacon, keeping you focused on your goal and saving you time.
Once you have your question, start decomposing your goal into smaller, more manageable chunks. What intermediate questions need to be answered en route to your main question? What critical bits of information are necessary to justify closing your laptop and finally going to sleep? Building an outline of your sub-goals will serve as a road map to help you maneuver through noisy databases and winding citations.
So start planning your literature searches & hop over to Part 2 about collecting articles!