#Five2read: My weekly curated list of interesting reads for learning academics

We live in an information-obese world. And overconsumption of unimportant information (i.e. information that doesn’t concern us) distracts us from being productive. So, one solution is to go on a low-information diet.

On the other hand, learning is an inherent part of becoming successful in any aspect of life. And we do this through consuming information. But how does that fit while proclaiming going on an information fast? It’s a matter what information we consume and how we do it.

I’m not a big fan of the recent hype on twitter aiming at reading one paper per (working)day whose participants hashtag their tweets with #365papers or #260papers respectively. In my opinion, it is symptomatic of overconsumption of (likely unnecessary) information. It distracts us more from being productive than helping us becoming better academics. And it sets unnecessary pressure on their peers who can’t keep pace (but more on that in a separate post).

My central aim of this blog is to inspire my readers to become better (read: independent) academics in a world that more and more resists facts in favor of sensitivities and where academia seems to have lost its connection to society. And since this is a work in progress for myself too, I’m reading quite a lot in order to get better.

Therefore, I decided to start curating a weekly list of five reads (one for each working day if you want) I find inspiring and from which I learned important lessons matching my central aim of this blog. I hope you find them helpful too.

 

1. How writing 200 blog posts in 200 days boost writing and creativity

“Combine ideas from your product with an idea from your general knowledge. Combining those two existing ideas results in creativity a brand new idea.”

 

We all know that good writing comes with practice. As any skill, we need to train frequently to improve it. But often, if you train something you might experience some positive side effects. Same with writing.

Barry Davret enforced himself to a writing challenge to write each day a new blog post for 200 consecutive days. The goal was simple: Write every day! But as often if you start something you find struggles and opportunities on the way to reach your goal.

In Barry’s case, it was creativity. After two weeks he runs out of ideas but he found an elegant way to overcome this struggle which led to a simple creativity-boosting formula:

Experience + Connection + Expertise = Creativity

He framed this formula into a four-step process consisting: Writing down experiences made, selecting the most interesting ones, find connections with your expertises, write.

With a clear list of your expertise and some practice, his advice will give you a lot of new ideas to write about. Be it for a blog or for framing interesting research questions.

 

2. When numbers don’t measure value

“The problem is we live in a now-now-now, instant gratification, lemme-see-the-numbers, what’s-the-ROI society that has trouble waiting to see the effects of a decision. The result is lots and lots and lots of short-term decisions.

 

What’s the Impact Factor of your PI? In academia, it often seems it all boils down to metrics and ranks: Where to publish, how many papers, how many citations, etc. etc. Academia is inherently driven by numbers and we risk of loosing the value of our work out of sight.

Unfortunately, academia is not the only area that suffers from a metrics-over-value mentality. In fact, we adapted it from the business sector, when academia became a business itself.

Start With Why author Simon Sinek wrote this interesting article on success in life and values that cannot be measured by metrics. I think there are many parallels of how many of us perceive the academic system and that many important elements of succeeding in academia cannot be simply boiled down to single numbers – such as the value of your mentor or a stimulative environment with great colleagues.

He refers that neither the famous TV show Seinfeld nor the Harry Potter book series would have become a thing when only focusing on the numbers at the beginning. Same way, lots of groundbreaking scientific discoveries wouldn’t have been possible in today’s metric bonded academic system (thinking of Darwin, or Peter Higgs) when only focusing on numbers. In the end, it’s all about people, Simon concludes, that believe in themselves and inspire other people to believe in them and what they do. Therefore, the Impact Factor of your PI cannot be measured but you will know whether it’s good or not.

 

3. Why assumptions are dangerous

“When we make assumptions about how things work, who people are, and what we’re capable of, we lay the groundwork for our own excuses”

 

As Josh Spector expressed in his brief post: Assumptions aren’t facts!

For instance, if you say: “I could never do that” you already restrict yourself from something and you build an excuse for not acting upon that task. Maybe you can’t do it but maybe you can. Your assumption restricts you from finding out.

The key is to create precedents to get rid of your assumptions. Try doing it and find out if you CAN do it before assuming you couldn’t. In most academic tasks there is no reason you can’t do something. It may be a matter of time and experience – but most often it is to make the first step.

So, stop assuming, start doing!

 

4. How to act against decision fatigue?

“[…] our ability to make sound judgments can deteriorate […]. The trick to making better decisions, then, is to figure out how to manage your internal resources and acknowledge your limits”

 

Hungry judges make more unfavorable rulings. Poor you when your case is tried just before lunch break. Same seems to count for university exams. There is evidence for a lunch-effect on grading as well as for cognitive depletion in students affecting exam performance.

As Melody Wilding outlines, this decision fatigue comes from four main sources – around which she wrapped the HALT self-care system. HALT comes from Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness.

Despite most actions seem quite obvious it is good to make yourself self-aware that each of them might have serious impacts on your decisions. For example, in stressful situations, we often forget to eat. Whether you are a judge, a lecturer, or a student: it might affect your performance and all it needs to prevent that potentially negative and lasting impact is having a snack in your pocket.

 

 

 5. How to write impactful paper titles?

“A title’s purpose is to inform you quickly and effectively enough about a paper to allow you to decide whether to invest more time in reading it”

 

Coming up with a good and catchy title can be struggling. It should present enough information to motivate the reader to read more while avoiding to overload it with distracting detail.

Writing Science author Joshua Schimel reviewed three main title types: statements, conclusions, and questions; how any of them work and can be improved. While there are no specific rules which one to prefer over the other one central question should be crystal clear before decision: Does it enhance communication? If yes: Do it! If not: Don’t do it! If neither: Do what you like!

What I particularly liked about this post are the examples he took from the journals Ecology and Ecology Letters as well as his own work and which he discussed lengthily. This provided a lot of interesting insights how to use the different techniques and how to avoid some common (but not always obvious) pitfalls for the own work. To all who have read his book might see this post as an additional chapter, as a topic clearly devoted to titles is missing in Writing Science.

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