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

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