The literature is the foundations for future studies
I’ve repeatedly encountered conversations involving early-career researchers claiming that they don’t have sufficient time to read papers. Sometimes this is clearly true. For example, few people can do much beyond sleeping and eating during an intensive field season or experiment. But I’ve also heard this from people who are sitting in their offices and at their computer all day. While there’s no denying that data analysis and other computer-based activities are important, my experience is that these efforts are often futile, or at least highly inefficient, when conducted in the absence of a clearly defined and achievable goal. I’ve also seen situations where researchers have doubled-down on such a situation by spending even more time and effort on analysis when they are having trouble finding a route through their data.
Read to stand on the shoulder of giants
Scientific advance doesn’t come out of nowhere. Few, if any, advances in any field are truly unique and novel. In fact, what makes humans so successful as a species is our ability to build on previous knowledge to generate new ideas, and to repeatedly test these ideas to create new knowledge. The very first step in any study should therefore be to identify what the current state of play is, or the so-called ‘state of the art’. This serves to ensure that previous work is fully acknowledged, but also that time isn’t spent reinventing the wheel.
What studies should be focused on? I would argue that a range of studies should be considered. Theory-based studies are often the most important for providing some concrete foundations on which to build a manuscript. Reviews or perspectives are ideal for gaining a clearer idea of how an idea fits into a broader context. Most empirical studies dedicate at least one paragraph in the discussion to future directions, and these can often provide the signposts for how to position present work. In addition, empirical studies are a goldmine for ideas on analysis and presentation of methods and results (e.g. how to plot data effectively). If you’re having trouble deciding on what to read, I would start with empirical studies, then read reviews/perspectives, then go onto theory, and finally come back to the empirical studies.
Building on previous work is not a sign of weakness
I remember once watching a conference talk by someone presenting the background to their study while carefully navigating their way around a high-profile paper (a perspective piece). Seemingly, their aim was to give the appearance that they had developed the ideas themselves. What struck me while watching this talk was the misguided concept that the study being presented by the research was stronger by appearing more novel. Instead, I would argue that the strongest studies are those that have a solid basis in existing theory, and that the best studies are those that are designed to clearly answer a research question that has been proposed in the literature.
The literature can bring clarity to work
The section I see most researchers have the most trouble with constructing is the introduction of their manuscript. In a way, this is surprising given that the introduction should be predominately a review of existing work. My impression is that many problems with identifying a clear narrative stem from not having read enough and, especially, not having read widely enough. The best studies to read, and therefore those most likely to succeed through peer review, place the work both in the context of closely-related work as well as within the broader set of ideas in closely-related fields. The juxtaposition here is that more widely-positioned studies can often have more succinct ‘to-the-point’ introductions.
Reading reveals the rules of scientific writing
One great benefit of scientific writing is that there are quite clear rules. For example, an abstract has a well-defined structure (see Nature or BES examples) that should be followed. Paragraphs should have an opening sentence that sets out the scope of the paragraph (i.e. the topic sentence), a set of arguments that builds out the topic, and then a concluding sentence that points the reader’s mind to the next logical step. Introductions lay out the broad ideas in the opening paragraph, give details in the following paragraphs, and provide a roadmap for the study in the final paragraph. Reading papers will, over time, make this structure feel like second nature. Finally, when you come across a paper that you particularly enjoyed reading, save it somewhere easy to find so that you can come back to it when you’re looking for inspiration in how to structure your own writing.
Read to become a better (and faster) writer
I absolutely have no doubts that reading ultimately saves time on writing later on. In fact, I often read, put aside, and re-read chunks of literature several times before I ever start writing any part of my papers. In my experience I’ve found that trying to write when I haven’t had a clear vision of what I am trying to achieve is futile, and results in a mess of disconnected ideas that fail to contribute to setting the scene of my own work. This process can take several weeks! But, with practice, I’ve found that once that lightbulb moment comes—where I realise how to frame a particular study—the writing becomes substantially easier, and the result is text that is more focused and concise. In short, I’ve never found that reading has been a waste of my time.