How to solve the problem of too much information and not enough timeEmma Warren-Jones
Ever find yourself thinking how much better your work could be if you just had time to read more of the information that’s out there? Even then, not everything we might save with the best intention of reading later is relevant or useful. And if that rare oasis of time does open up, skim-reading is probably the most common and practical way of processing several articles to find what’s useful. In fact, as a way of digesting large volumes of information, skim reading is actively encouraged by some. Speaking at the 2018 Deep Learning Indaba, Jeff Dean, Head of AI at Google, said:
“…he’d rather read ten papers superficially than one paper in-depth to get as much inspiration as possible as one can always go back to read a paper more deeply (he conceded that reading 100 abstracts might be even better).”
But the availability of reading time (either superficial or in-depth) is shrinking fast, and masses of valuable information available to us is being missed as a result.
The way we process and retain knowledge today is changing for several reasons. Rapid growth of research material published online shows no signs of slowing down, with 3.3 million articles published worldwide in 2017 alone, (Bornmann and Mutz, 2019). Yet studies have shown that the time academics have to spend on reading is increasingly limited, with the average US faculty reading only 21 papers per month, spending 32 minutes on each (TENOPIR, Carol, et al.). Add to that our growing preference for reading even long form articles on our phones in a few snatched minutes, and it’s easy to see the potential for missing the important stuff.
And it’s not just content that’s multiplying before our eyes – so are the channels feeding us that information. Then there’s the increasingly fluid and expanding nature of the jobs we do, which increases our need to learn more and adapt quickly. All of these factors combined can result in overload, confusion and serious obstacles to progress. The very information that should be helping us, is creating a barrier to learning. There’s simply too much to read and not enough time to read it.
Retrieving information vs retaining knowledge.
Learning by rote in academia and retaining large volumes of information in the professional world don’t carry the weight they once did. There’s growing emphasis instead on our ability to search and filter masses of information; find the most relevant (and reliable) material; understand it deeply; and apply the resulting knowledge creatively. The problem is that getting to the point of absorbing, understanding and applying the material we’ve read is taking longer as published information continues to grow.
And then what do you do with that knowledge? File it in the grey matter and leave it to memory or scribble it down on a random note that you lose to the cloud? How do you get that light bulb moment back weeks, or even months after you read the article that sparked it?
Finding the right information only solves part of the problem.
Scholarcy’s founder, Phil Gooch, has experienced many of these challenges first-hand.
“In 2010, I left my job as a software engineer and went back to full-time study to do a PhD. As a doctoral student, you spend the first-year trying to absorb the mass of literature in your field, and I saw people drop out at this stage.
There were plenty of tools out there that, given one paper, would recommend hundreds more, but there was nothing that could help me really understand the material in front of me.
I needed something to help me grasp the core concepts of a paper faster; highlight and save the main points; and generate a referenced summary so that I could quickly check its reliability. I finished the PhD in 2012 without this help, but I knew there had to be a better way of doing it.”
In 2019, existing services still aren’t addressing this problem. There’s a growing number of content repositories and discovery tools that recommend more papers to read and provide aggregated information about a topic, but if you want to know ‘what are the key findings of this paper I’m reading right now’, you are not well served – unless you take the abstract at face value.
A universal challenge.
And the problem isn’t restricted to academic research. Imagine you’re an industry analyst or policy researcher. A 400-page report has just landed on your desk and you need to understand, summarise and talk about it by tomorrow morning.
Or you’re a publisher facing increased competition and you need to make your content easier to find via search engines, but also give your customers more imperative to buy. Just previewing the first pages of a book or showing the abstract in your webstore isn’t enough to convince a savvy, time-short customer anymore.
And, whether we’re looking to buy a book, download an article, or decide if a piece of research is worth reading, chances are the amount of time we spend making these decisions is much shorter than just few years ago. Information is ubiquitous, decisions are fast, and memory is short.
So, what’s the answer?
More than a list of titles, less than 400 words: The Goldilocks rule of retaining new information.
Discovery and recommendation tools will return hundreds if not thousands of links to suggested reading on any subject. The result can be an overwhelming amount of material to trawl through and condense before you can even get to the point of trying to understand your subject. A 400-word summarised snapshot of a document anywhere between 10-1,000 pages long will give you a good indicator of its relevance and help you decide in a few minutes whether it’s worthwhile spending more time on it.
Then imagine having that same summarised view of 20+ articles or reports in one go, and you suddenly have a really condensed overview of your topic and a clear starting point for more in-depth research – all in the time it would have taken you to skim read a page of text. You’re also more likely to be able to retain that information or remember it more easily when you come back to it later.
Get to grips with important concepts using a different approach to new material.
The starting point of understanding any new subject – whether you’re a student, researcher or journalist – is background reading and familiarising yourself with the core concepts. But even just highlighting the main findings and other significant points in an article takes time.
Having that text highlighted for you based on its significance to the rest of the document means you can get a good sense of its overall meaning in a few minutes and communicate that meaning other people more clearly. With a solid basic understanding of a subject, you can also get to grips with the more complex detail faster. Direct links to reliable explanations of terms that are new to you can also substantially cut the time and distraction involved in researching a new subject.
Remove the risk of lost notes and having to re-read the original text from scratch.
Not just every student’s nightmare…..we’ve all been there! Highlights and notes are your most reliable tool when it comes to starting where you left off (and remembering how you got there). But highlighted papers and notes are notoriously elusive when you need them most – whether they’re printed or online. Having reliable access to consistently formatted summaries of every paper or article you need for your research, along with highlights and your own annotations, can save the hours of time needed to refresh your memory by re-reading the original document.
Don’t waste time on unreliable information.
Whatever your job, or type of research you’re doing, it’s increasingly easy to waste time on unverified, inaccurate information which is hiding in plain sight all over the internet – even under the guise of academic research. Once you’ve established that the information you’re looking at is relevant, your next step (even before reading it in depth), should be to validate that it’s trustworthy. Manually looking up cited sources to check an article’s validity can also suck up a big part of your day. Having direct links to every cited source in an article can give you this time back. And it’s often not enough to know that cited sources are legitimate – you also need a good sense of their key findings. Having summary snapshots of all cited material removes the need to skim-read the original papers is a potential game-changer for any kind of research.
Summarising the world’s information.
The reality is that none of us will ever have time to read every piece of information that could be useful to us. And the truth is, we probably don’t need to – even to excel at what we do. The important thing is finding the information that best serves our needs faster, understanding fully, trusting it, and retaining just enough of what we need.
Our mission at Scholarcy is to summarise the world’s information so that you can spend more of your time making an impact with it.
 Newsletter.ruder.io. (2019). Deep Learning Indaba 2018 edition. [online] Available at: http://newsletter.ruder.io/issues/deep-learning-indaba-2018-edition-132825 [Accessed 22 Jan. 2019].
 Bornmann, L. and Mutz, R. (2019). Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references. [online] arXiv.org. Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1402.4578 [Accessed 22 Jan. 2019].
 TENOPIR, Carol, et al. “Scholarly Article Seeking, Reading, and Use: a Continuing Evolution from Print to Electronic in the Sciences and Social Sciences.” The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering, Wiley-Blackwell, 1 Apr. 2015, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1087/20150203. Accessed 22 Jan. 2019.