Wormhole literature

I have a friend, let’s call her Jenny.

Jenny is about six months into her degree and just beginning to discover the true extent of the literature which might be relevant to her topic, by which I mean she’s completely freaking out.

Jenny ‘s had a good start to her literature review. She initially read things her supervisor suggested and then went off exploring, using the references in those papers as a stating point. She met with her subject librarian who taught her about databases and how to use Google Scholar properly (not everything is in there, just so you know). The librarian taught her how keywords work and how to do citation searches. With these new mad skills of library Jenny discovered a vast amount of stuff, which, although it was interesting, seemed only peripherally related to her topic.

She discussed ideas she had read about with her supervisors and some of her peers. She wrote a bit, then read some more. Under the influence of the literature, her ideas about her thesis changed. She started to recognise the same names started appearing in the bibliographies and understand how the scholars were linked together in skeins of thought. Being a social type of person she did a bit of academic networking and started to know, socially, some of the people who wrote those papers. This made her feel more confident. Comfortable even. Part of a community.

Until she downloaded THAT paper.

She didn’t realise how important the paper was at first. She merely downloaded it as part of a conference proceeding, read it and then tucked it away in her database under the mental tag: ‘interesting, but not relevant’. There it might have stayed, unloved, if she had not had her paper proposal accepted at the next iteration of that conference. Being the diligent type of student, Jenny dug out the proceedings again to get a feel for the length and tone of the papers.

So it wasn’t until the second read through that she realised that it was THAT paper.

sg1You see – suddenly that paper spoke to her. That paper, on the second read, seemed to touch on every idea that she had thought about so far, but – you know – in a better way. It took her half formed ideas and wrapped beautiful words around them. Although it didn’t precisely scoop her thesis topic, that paper showed her that she had only been reading in the shallow end of the pool.

The paper had a bibliography; full of papers that she had not read. This surprised Jenny. She had thought she was on top of the main players in her field. So she read some of the referenced papers and, as it turns out, all of them were interesting, relevant – even important. She started to see THAT paper as a godsend. It was, if you like, a set of goggles she could use to swim in the deep end of the pool.

Then an uncomfortable thought intruded.

What might have happened if she had not bothered to read that paper twice?

What if she had carried on, without knowing that all this other literature existed? What might her examiners – who surely would have read all those papers – have thought of her? They would think she was a bad scholar! They would have failed her!

Hence the phonecall to me (I’m a useful friend to have when you are doing a PhD as you can imagine). I tried to tell Jenny that she was borrowing trouble. She had now read the paper. All those terrible things wouldn’t happen. But she was far from reassured. Why did she not see the importance the first time she read it? How had she missed all this literature it pointed to? It was clear to me that her faith in her new mad skills of library was deeply shaken.

So I promised this post.

You see, the feelings Jenny was experiencing are completely normal. In fact, realising you have just missed a piece of important literature is number four in the Thesis Whisperer’s top five #phdemotions. In case you were wondering, here is the list:

  1. Elation when you realise you know more than your supervisor about your topic and you feel brave enough to argue about it.
  2. Fear of being ‘found out’ as fraud, not really knowing enough/being smart enough to be Phd student.
  3. Unexpected admiration of your own writing.
  4. The “I’m a genius! Why hasn’t anybody thought to do that before?” moment before people point out the obscure paper you’ve not read.
  5. Misplaced smugness after photocopying/downloading loads of stuff but not actually reading it.

So why didn’t Jenny see how important this paper was the first time she read it?

Answer: sometimes you can’t see the gorillas.

There’s a difference, some artists contend, between looking and seeing. Looking involves taking in a scene with your eyes, seeing involves making meaning from it with your brain. The key to making meaning is relevance. It’s surprisingly easy to miss the relevance of other people’s work, partly, perhaps, because of how we are wired to look at stuff in the first place.

There’s a famous experiment with a Gorilla and basketball players which is a good demonstration of how our processes of looking. When participants were asked to watch a video and count the number of passes basketball players were making, most failed to notice a guy wearing a gorilla suit wandering through the scene, even when he stopped to beat his chest. When you watch the video knowing the gorilla is there it is almost impossible to believe that people could miss him. But those people were looking at the ball being passed between players and paying attention to the number of times this happened, they were not looking for gorillas. They were not primed to look for a gorilla, so they literally did not see it.

I suspect this is what happened to Jenny on the first reading. She hadn’t yet read enough to know what she should be looking for. She wasn’t yet primed and so couldn’t see what she needed to see. Just as you can’t understand a whole conversation from two lines of dialogue, academic papers rarely make sense in isolation. Re-reading is an important part of the process. If you don’t see the point the first, second or even third read, you have not made a mistake – you just haven’t seen gorillas yet. Or there may be no gorillas to be seen. Getting to know literature is like watching a picture come into focus. Be patient, just keep reading.

What would have happened if Jenny had not re-found this paper ‘by accident’

Answer: there are no accidents.

The first thing to realise is that she didn’t re-discover this paper by ‘accident’ at all. I contend that if Jenny hadn’t gone looking for that conference proceedings for another reason, she still would have re-discovered the paper anyway, probably via a citation. I routinely download articles without realising I already have them until my database tells me. I’m experienced enough to realise this is not because I have made an error; this is just what happens sometimes. I can’t keep everything I have ever read in my head. I may not have recognised the importance the first time around and therefore forgotten about it. Procedures are important for this reason. So long as Jenny kept on doing exactly what she was doing – reading, writing, thinking, talking – she would eventually have found, if not everything, enough of it to convince the examiners that she is a competent scholar.

How had Jenny ‘missed’ all that other literature?

Answer: that paper was a piece of wormhole literature.

One of my favourite TV shows is Stargate SG1, mostly because of the way Col Samantha Carter kicks ass the wormhole itself. It’s a fantastic magic device that catapults our heroes to another world, in seconds. THAT paper was a research wormhole; it catapulted Jenny into a whole new area of potentially relevant literature. Again I say, if she kept doing what she was doing, she would have found all those papers – eventually. But sometimes, even travelling at light speed, it can take a long time to get somewhere. That paper helped Jenny, briefly, bend the laws of research physics for a moment – and that’s got to be a good thing.

Have you had an experience similar to Jenny’s? Do you have any suggestions for making sure that you are getting everything you need out of the literature?

Relevant Posts

5 ways to tame the literature dragon

The Top five #phdemotions

38 thoughts on “Wormhole literature

  1. Great article! I had a similar experience at the very start of my PhD when I went to a short one-day seminar that wasn’t really related to my PhD, but went because a friend was going and it sounded interesting. We went round the table and introduced ourselves and our area of research – I said I was here out of interest although my PhD related to an historical character that didn’t really relate to the seminar. During the break one of the participants came up to me and told me he’d been researching the particular focus of my PhD, and had just had a book published with a chapter about my exact topic. The book had been published a month earlier, and there is no way I would have found it from citations – but was exactly what I needed to point me in the right direction. It just shows the power of networking, even when you think you’re spreading yourself a bit thin!

  2. These are all great points, but I think the main point (for me at least, as someone who just defended) is that there will ALWAYS be an important paper you haven’t read. It’s in the wormhole. Or it’s from another unrelated field but still perfect for what you are looking for. You can’t beat yourself up about these things (aside from the major obvious seminal papers you really do need to read) because there is just too much information out there at this point

  3. Thank you….I am 9 months into my Ph.D (part time) I am also working full time- nuts I know….but I am in the process of putting together my first attempt at a Lit Review and I am in the wormhole…thank you for giving me the word that so clearly describes where I am at!

  4. Thanks for this article. I experienced a similar sci-fi PhD theory, something that my childhood fascination with Back to the Future failed to prepare me for… The ‘Eureka! Thank GOD they just published this!’ moment when you discover The Text that connects your baby steps with a whole line of enquiry that you had hitherto thought irrelevant. Suddenly, the ideas that you have been trying to articulate to befuddled senior staff have precedent. Oddly, I recently met a fellow PhD student in contemporary literary theory who also had a similar experience with the same author! Sometimes, The Work just isn’t out there when you begin your PhD research. Thank goodness for the wormholes – they can drive you crazy, but they can also save your sanity. And make you feel a little like Doc Brown… GREAT SCOTT.

  5. Here’s a conundrum…
    What happen when (as I am) you have finished your thesis, are polishing it to submit really soon and you go to an international conference and meet an Australian academic, who may possibly be one of your examiners, who has just completed an amazing research project that is highly relevant to your research BUT she hasn’t published any of it yet. So you can’t reference it. And the conference proceedings won’t be published until well after your thesis is in… O_o

  6. Terrific post. I revisited the papers I had read early on just as I started the final put-it-all-together, about a year out. I discovered some gems that i had dismissed as interesting, but beyond the scope. The scope had changed significantly. One examiner referred to something really important which I had missed. I had used a paper from the researcher, but not her major work. Embarrassing, but it didn’t affect the pass. I have now read it to include in the rewrite for publication.

    Eleanor, I had similar issues, but included the informations as a personal comment, and that went fine. Shows that you are in touch with the current researchers.

  7. This is a great post. I suppose the feeling of ‘missing something important’ is the most common feeling for all PhD students. I discuss it with my supervisor a lot! But I think with time you gain confidence that you are getting a handle on all the literature and are picking up on the articles you need to. At least I hope so…

  8. Great post Inger! I had the same thing happen to me more than once in my PhD journey. In “The act of creation,” Arthur Koestler wrote of “ripeness” for a creative idea. You don’t see something until you’re ready to. It’s normal – and exciting!

  9. The wormhole analogy. Yes! In the first year of searching I spent days being lost in spaces that, looking back, were predictable places to look and then in my second run through of citations I stumbled across little sparkly articles that made me feel like part of a community because they were asking similar questions to me. I did find – just as Id finished my first draft – a paper that I thought answered my questions. I pretended it wasnt there for a while but I went back and re-read it and found it had some, not all, of what I was doing. I love the discovery part of the research…

  10. Hi,
    What you write here is the exact same that had happened to me few months back.

    UNTIL I FOUND THAT PAPER. That conference paper that in my first read, I wouldn’t think that it is relevant at all.

    When I went through it again, for some reason, the paper seems very relevant and contain my half cooked ideas, only then that it is beautifully crafted.

    Thanks Inger, this post really make my day :)

  11. I continue to worry that even though I have found “that paper” there might be yet another one of “those papers” out there that I haven’t found. A really really important one, possibly one that my examiner has reviewed or even contributed to. Nightmare territory.

  12. I just want to thank you fro the Stargate SG-1 reference in an academic-related blog post! I have the ten season collection — and when the dissertation would get too overwhelming, I would escape through the wormhole for a couple of hours.

  13. Certainly! We all have had the same problem. And during your viva, there always will be a professor who’ll ask you “Have you read this-and-that-paper?” And you wouldn’t have! My point is, it is all very well to read as much as you can but: 1. the point of doing research is not to start from your own student’s idea about things but it start from something that has not been worked on yet (this is where a good thesis director/instructor/call them what you will… can help you out and this is why it is so very important to choose the right one!) and 2. to know when to stop reading and start writing! We all know we keep on reading anyway… researchers are just too curious… But there is a balance in there and if you never stop wondering about what others might have written or might still write that is so close to your ideas, you will never get the chance to write anything of value yourself!

  14. I can so relate, and found, in fact, *several* such papers (probably because my thesis took me so log to write up ).

    Having since turned from Biology to Library Science, I have some thoughts on why this might be, why *the* important paper didn’t turn up in searches:

    Let’s say you sit down and search the terms you know, all possible synonyms, different forms of the word. It is still possible that the author, especially if approaching the topic from a different (sub)discipline, or operating in a scientific community that doesn’t interact much with yours, describes the same phenomenon with completely different terms, terms you didn’t search for! Just look at a few of your favourite papers, and how differently authors think, when they add keywords to their papers! True, more standardized keywords are often added in databases, but not to the extent that wormholes disappear. I agree with the Thesis Whisperer that with a systematic approach & some serendipitous stumbling, the chances of such wormholes will be greatly reduced. Then again, there will be some. In the end, one will just have to accept that ‘this is as far as I got’. If you stumble across such a paper just after handing in your thesis, you can freak out. Or instead think to yourself that you now have a great proposal for a Post Doc project. In the end, no thesis can be exhaustive…

  15. I’ve had experiences like Jenny’s and I wish I’d had more. It’s one of the most solid ways to tell that you’re doing things right. If you think about the alternative and just breezing through thinking everything is fine having not read the paper, only to have a very tough thesis examination. As tough as it is, I try to teach people to be reassured when they come across a hurdle like this. It means they’re doing it right and their writing will ultimately benefit as a result.

    Where do you find these papers? Well obviously you can find them anywhere. However in my personal experience and from tutoring others, lots of these wormhole papers come as recommendations from other people. This kind of makes sense, if you were going to find them yourself then they would show up in your initial searches. So I always tell people to proactively talk to others about papers and the field to see if your peers can recommend papers to you. Also don’t be shy about recommending papers to your peers that they might find interesting. A bit of paper sharing karma can go a long way.

    I also think it helps to keep good centralised notes on your collected papers either in evernote or in a word document. This way you can quickly re-evaluate all the papers you’ve read to see if they have become more important to you as your depth of understanding has increased.

  16. I have a variant of the wormhole situation. My work is in a multidisciplinary area between linguistics, math logic and software engineering. I’m constantly nervous that I breezed past a key wormhole paper and having done so will trip me up down the track. In a way, this fear makes it hard to stop monitoring new proceedings and just write up the damn dissertation.

  17. I found THAT amazing paper in the ReadCube recommendations. It had only been published the week before and it placed my (masters) thesis in a whole new context – 3 months before deadline and about 1 week before I was going to present my thesis to my group!!

  18. I’ve found three or four ‘wormhole literature’ papers:
    + Lessig, L. “Law Regulating Code Regulating Law.” Loy. U. Chi. LJ 35 (2003): 1.
    + Zittrain, Jonathan. “Meeting the Risks of Generativity: Privacy 2.0.” In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Yale University Press, 2008. http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/20.
    + Kirby, Michael. “The Fundamental Problem of Regulating Technology.” Indian Journal of Law and Technology 5 (2009). http://www.nls.ac.in/ojs-2.2.3/index.php/IJLT/article/view/60/0.
    + Ohm, Paul. “Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization.” UCLA Law Review 57, no. 6 (2010). http://uclalawreview.org/?p=1353.

    They didn’t just take me to a different place. Looking through these wormholes changed my whole point of view. As a researcher, I love these papers. They are fundamental to how I think now. I really hope that I find more.

    But I’m not doing a PhD. There are no bogie-man examiners in my future. I have blind reviewers to contend with, but they are different – they are peers.

    I think that it is like learning to drive. As people around me did crazy things to avoid my [L]-plated car, I got more and more nervous. My driving instructor said that it would be different after I had my licence. While I was on Learner or Provisional plates, other drivers pre-judged me (like Jenny’s imaginary examiners). Once I had my full licence, other drivers mostly ignored me (until I did something stupid and then they would beep me). All of a sudden, they were my peers. Not so scary anymore.

  19. I always think that things happen for a reason, we meet people, visit places we have never been out of curiosity but there’s always a connection somewhere down the track. They always link up when the time is right for it to. We are drawn to people,places or objects that will eventually lead us on the right track.

  20. Pingback: M is for… Mewburn (Dr Inger) – The Thesis Whisperer #AtoZChallenge | kirstyes

  21. Great article. I had a similar experience not being able to find literature in my field of interest. That was until a former PhD student suggested I look in databases outside of my field. From there I discovered a gold mine. I did panic for a while just as Jenny did. I soon remembered that I am a new student on a new adventure, learning new skills and finally relaxed.

  22. Pingback: Wormhole literature | librarythings@uow

  23. I am really inspired with your writing skills well as} with the format for your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway stay up the excellent quality writing, it is uncommon to peer a nice blog like this one these days..

  24. Pingback: ‘Consume ALL the literature!’ Or why it’s all about the bitesize approach | The Dissident Porn Scholar

  25. Pingback: We’re taking a break: see you in 2014! | The Thesis Whisperer

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