In order to understand academic literature, first you need to know that academic journal articles are written by real people. This can be easy to forget when you have a massive stack of printed papers on your desk.
The field consists not of words on paper, but of professors, lecturers, postdocs, and PhD students just like you.
Publish or Perish
Publications are the lifeblood of an academic career. Spend enough time around researchers and you will inevitably hear phrases like, ”publish or perish”, or ”you live or die by your last publication”.
This is because getting funding for research usually depends on the applicant’s recent publication record. A funding agency is much more likely to give money to someone who has a strong track record than someone who hasn’t published anything for years.
Without funding, it’s difficult to do research, and difficult to publish, which makes it harder to get funding…
And often, a researcher’s ongoing employment depends upon bringing in funding to the university they work for.
So to put it simply, if you don’t publish, your career will at best flounder, and at worst, come to an abrupt end. This is the pressure on most academics worldwide.
Not all papers are of equal value
Many papers are written under extreme pressure to publish, and even experienced researchers sit nervously checking their email inbox to see if a paper has been deemed good enough to be accepted.
Some papers are exceptional and have a massive impact, but the majority make a small contribution which the authors are just happy to have published.
If you want to get to know a field quickly, just reading as many papers as possible means you’ll be reading a large number of papers which only have a very small impact on the field, so it will take a very long time to build up an overall view.
Focus on the leaders in the field first
But, if you focus on the leaders in your field, the ones who have made the largest contribution, then by reading a relatively small number of papers you can quite quickly develop a decent level of knowledge.
This is easier the more specialised you make your search.
When you narrow it down to your own very specific area of study, there many be only 3 or 4, or perhaps even fewer, experts dedicated to studying that particular thing.
When you narrow it down that much, it is possible to read a large proportion, or even all of the papers those people have ever written on the subject.
This will give you a far better insight into the subject than just downloading hundreds of papers by keyword.
Understanding academic literature
Obviously you need to build upon this foundation, but it becomes much easier to understand many papers once you’ve got a good understanding of an important few.
(check out the blog post: An easier way to review literature (cheat))
This blog post is an excerpt from the video “201: Getting started with academic literature”, available on the 14th February 2013 as part of the painless PhD video course