Home » Tips & Tricks » An Undergraduate Guide to Scientific Literature – Part 3

An Undergraduate Guide to Scientific Literature – Part 3


Welcome back everyone! Today we have the last two steps necessary for a successful literature search!

(Recall Step 1 is planning, and Step 2 is collecting.)

Step 3. Filtering

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu 

Once you feel satisfied about your pile of literature, start refining your folders down to only the most relevant papers. Discarding irrelevant papers at the front end will save hours of potentially wasted time trekking to Starbucks for yet another iced coffee. At this point, it is normal to feel frustrated about the lack of “real” work; you have not actually read any papers yet, but that is okay. Right now, you are saving your brain-power for the few, key papers that will serve as the basis for your future project. Sticking to a planning, collecting, and filtering stage will help prevent your attention from slipping as you move into the hardest phase, interpreting.

The vast majority of papers can be filtered by reading the first two and last two sentences of the abstract. Generally speaking, the first part of an abstract describes the purpose of the experiments, the middle part describes the experiments, themselves, and the last part of an abstract describes the most important conclusions. When filtering, avoid the enticing draw of the introduction, and just read enough of each abstract to make a save/discard decision, and then move on to the next one. If you are on the fence, use the last sentence of the introduction as a determining factor, or you can just put the paper in a “maybe later” folder. However, considering you have already procrastinated this much, the “maybe later” folder can very quickly turn into a “probably never” folder, so use your own discretion here.

part 3

We’ve all been there.

As always, remember to write everything down. The process of filtering may show some holes in your original research question identified in the planning stage, and you may need to restructure your sub-questions accordingly. At the very least, jotting down a sentence or two in plain English about your saved papers will make restarting your search easier after the inevitable obligation to attend class for participation points.


Step 4. Interpreting

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it.” – Greg Anderson

Without a doubt, the hardest part of any literature search is when you have to get comfy and actually figure out the answers to your (or your mentor’s) scientific ponderings. But there is a good reason why the hardest step is saved for last: you are prepared for the challenge now! Take a look back at your plan, and see the papers you need to read, not as an endless time-warp, but as a simple project with clear intermediate and end goals. Doesn’t look so hard anymore, now does it? Furthermore, there are a couple more tips and tricks to save time when interpreting papers.

First off, start treating the methods section like the event horizon of a black hole – once you are in, there is no escape. Unless you plan on repeating the methods yourself, or you need clarification on a figure, just read the introduction, skim the results, and move onto the discussion, focusing on the data and conclusions most important to your project. The 80-20 Rule is extremely relevant here, where 80% of the important information can be found in 20% of the paper. Pro tip: you can get the entire story of the paper just by the figures, which proves the scientific community as a whole never really grew out of the I-won’t-read-a-book-without-pictures phase. Every piece of scientific literature contains a wealth of information, but try and contain yourself only to the parts most relevant to your specific questions, identified during the planning stage.


black hole

Reader beware! We found the Methods section!

Secondly, try and tackle everything in bursts to maximize your productivity. Take breaks in between planning your search, collecting papers, and filtering. Completing each phase in a separate sitting will prevent you from stalling, and give you a sense of satisfaction from making progress. In the same manner, you will retain more information by breaking your interpretation into smaller chunks. Read two or three papers to answer one of your sub-questions, then take a short break. If you keep plugging along, you will be finished before you know it!

Lastly, (hopefully you saw this one coming) remember to write everything down! Besides keeping you from falling asleep at your computer, writing/typing notes for each paper will give you something to reference later without having to read the paper all over again. In addition, you can avoid falling down the reference rabbit hole by making a note to look up a citation later. Remember, keep your collecting and interpreting stages separate, because working on one task is always more efficient than trying to do everything at once.

And that’s all there is to it! Hopefully you have a much more holistic view of literature searches at this point, which will help you budget your time accordingly. Experience has shown there are no two ways around literature searches, but making and executing a plan can make the entire process much less painful, and all the while giving you a deeper sense of satisfaction at the end.

Best of luck, and happy searching!

About the author: As an undergraduate, Stephen Kita has completed research projects in five distinct spheres of academia (cell biology, material science, computer vision, signal processing, and synthetic biology), and has done his fair share of literature searches.


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