High impact papers are not how you learn science

Published: February 13, 2020   |   Read time:

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Broadly speaking, “high impact” papers are those groundbreaking papers, the research that is novel, insightful, thorough, and inspires hundreds if not thousands of other projects and sub-disciplines. These papers are the ones that impact entire subfields and have the potential to produce paradigm shifts.

These papers are, clearly, very important, and an individual scientist strives to be able to write one of these papers. But when I was a new graduate student, I often found them baffling and became frustrated when I read them. I couldn’t comprehend why these papers were listed in “high impact” or “top tier” journals when I never felt like the explained anything and glossed over every result.

The thing that took me a while to figure out was that these papers are supposedly at the pinnacle of current research, but they are not where you as a scientist learn to conduct excellent research.

It’s like watching professional sports when you’re still trying to learn the strategy behind the game. You can see exceptional footwork or athleticism, but often those players will do something that you, as a novice, know you shouldn’t do under normal circumstances. It takes you a while to figure out that those athletes don’t play at “normal” circumstances that you would encounter, and thus they are able to do things you shouldn’t, can’t, or just don’t know how to do yet.

Reading these “high impact” papers takes time to understand their complexity, and it takes lots of effort to even understand what they’re doing in the first place. These papers are often years’ worth of effort by multiple people at the pinnacle of their research careers publishing on novel and exciting topics at just the right time. They often contain too much work for a single individual to understand, even after reading it a dozen times. So it makes sense that those are not the papers you should be reading to build your skills as a new scientist.

These are the papers your supervisors and other professors should be reading and understanding. That’s not to say that you can or should ignore them. You just have to be mindful that you’re probably not going to understand them for years, and that’s ok.

Start by reading smaller papers that have a more singular focus and are more directly relevant to your work. These are more digestible and understandable, and they give you a better understanding of the ground game that needs to be played to produce thorough and rigorous research. This is where you build your foundation as a researcher.

As you develop your skills, gain a broader understanding of your field, and mature in the way you conduct your research, you can begin to understand the complexity of these “high impact” papers and appreciate them for what they are.

Don’t run before you can walk, and don’t read “high impact” papers expecting that you can do all the things that they do without years of experience under your belt.