Step 3: Limit yourself
By now, you’ve found a paper or two that interests you and you’re slowly beginning the process of understanding it. Don’t be a hero! Take it little by little. The key is to begin with something very manageable.
I mentioned that a small dataset—a small table, a graph, a figure that presents some data you want to explore—is the best place to start. You might even want to try and take it section by section, coming to terms with each as a way to understand the entirety of the paper.
For me, I read the abstract first and then I “look at the pictures” (i.e., analyze the figures). But you may want to begin at the Abstract and work your way sequentially through the paper. Alternatively, you may want to look at the first few paragraphs of the discussion to see where the paper is going. There is no right or wrong way to reading a paper.
However, when it comes to blogging about your paper one of the most common mistakes made it to try to cover the paper—or worse, several papers—in one blog post. What that will get you is a very cursory or superficial synopsis of the paper. That’s great if you’re writing a summary article for the New York Times for the general public. But that’s not what you’re trying to do here. You’re trying to analyze the paper, think critically about the data, and come to some reasoned judgement as to its validity. Start with small chunks. You may want to begin with a brief post of what the problem the paper is trying to address—critically analyzing why this paper may or may not be able to even address the problem. For example, if the paper seeks to answer a question about MRI imaging and the high number of false positives in human patients, but the study will present data in rats, then there already may be a disconnect (on not?) in what will follow. Your job is to think deeply and critically—with a healthy level of skepticism for every sentence made in the paper. Start with the title.
In a subsequent post you may want to then critique the methods used, or laud a clever approach that gets at the problem in a new and unique way—it doesn’t always have to be negative. Remember, critical and negative are two different things.
Another common mistake when starting out: jargon or terms that are not well defined. It’s a red flag to see undefined terms or technical comments that may not be readily apparent to the intelligent reader. I’ve already committed this crime: I didn’t define MRI (maybe this week in class). If I see a lot of jargon or terms that are not defined, it shows me that the writer either didn’t really understand what was said and simply parroted the statement from the paper, or understood the term and couldn’t articulate the concept in a way that fit the blog. Either case is not good. Remember, if you’re just going to summarize a summary (either a “news” article that summarized the original paper, or the abstract from that paper), then you’re only working at a relatively low order of critical thinking. Try to go beyond that and tell us what the data (one small dataset), or the method, or the problem means.
The key: limit yourself. Small digestible thoughtful bits are will always trump sweeping superficial globs.