Reading scientific literature is a demanding task, although it can be fun or even exciting. While reading a single text might be manageable, researchers have to deal with a flood of field-specific texts every year. The days are gone when someone could have known all of the relevant literature on any one topic. Therefore, the question is, how can you manage the reading workload without drowning in the attempt? You might want to consider the following steps.
First, if you have stacks of articles and books piling up, you might want to skim them and decide which texts are relevant. In order to determine that you will need to define criteria of relevance (as you have to do for a literature review anyway). With the criteria in mind, you can skim the following parts of each text in that order: title, abstract, introduction and/or conclusion. As soon as you find that the criteria do not apply to a text, move on to the next one.
Second, whether you have a stack of texts to read or only one, make sure you formulate a reading goal: Why should I read this text? What do I want to learn from it? Similarly, it helps to formulate what you expect the text to deliver as well as what you already know about the topic. You should also determine how much time you want to spend on the text. With a reading goal, you will be able to fine-tune your reading. It also influences the way you read and process what you’ve read.
The third step consists of defining how you read: Do you use pen and marker to highlight important words, sentences or passages? Do you write notes in the margin? Do you take notes on a separate paper? What should the notes look like: factual reporting of the content or commentary about what the author says and does? Do you use visualization methods such as clustering or Mind Map to take notes? Depending on the text and the different aspects of your reading goal, you might want to define these aspects more or less deliberately. Especially when it comes to a big stack of articles that you need to read, a systematic approach makes your life easier.
As the fourth and last step, you have to define how you will use the text afterwards. Do you summarize it (again, is it a factual summary or a commentary) or do you try to write directly about it in your own text? Do you compare it to other texts you’ve read (e.g. for a literature review)? These and other questions become crucial if you want to use texts for your own work, to learning for an exam or preparing a presentation.
You don’t need to go through all of the steps for each and every text you read. If you read for pleasure, then you don’t need a reading goal or method for note-taking. It all depends on what you want to get from and what you intend to do with a particular text. You might get into a routine and stick to similar methods and strategies. Whatever you choose to do, be deliberate and think about how your decisions will help you deal with your workload for reading and writing.