We always ask what the most important tools for research are. We might think that the tools can be Matlab, Python or other programming languages. We might also think about some software commonly used in engineering, for example, computer aided design (CAD) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) as well as some mathematical or statistical tools. The answer is NO.
The most important tools for research are reading and writing skills. These skills are “the fishing rod of a fisherman”. With these skills, people can learn programming, mathematics, statistics, software and other tools required in their research field. However, these skills require time and a lot of exercise to master.
I have observed many Phd students who have limited technical skills (programming, statistics, software and others) when they started their PhD, but have good reading and writing skills, can progress very fast in their research and finally are more successful and productive, for example more publications. We must maximise our undergraduate and master periods to hone our reading and writing skills. We can use current available free information sources on the internet to learn and practice. If possible, we can seek help to a person that already has the skills to guide us honing the skills.
In research, reading skills is vital to conduct literature reviews. Literature review is an activity (commonly by reading journal articles, conferences, patent and other scientific/technical publications such as magazine) to collect information related to a certain topic, link them together into a single-piece of meaningful story and decide/suggest what directions worth pushing further in the topic-related field. It is very often that a literature review should cover findings related to the topic up to 10 years period backward. Tens, if not hundreds, of articles need to be reviewed in the activity.
With a good reading skill, ones can effectively and efficiently extract necessary information from an article rapidly. They know how to read through abstract and conclusion in an article, and then scan necessary information in the article’s body. If we do not have literature review experiences, the review can take us hours to extract information in an article and very often we need to re-read the article several times to understand and get the information that we want.
Of course, this reading skill can be gained through consistence learnings and practices. The more articles we read, the faster we can scan and find relevant information in the articles. During a reading, we need to spend at least one hour (better more) without distraction (deep reading) to allow our brain to consume and digest the content. In this way, we will develop the reading skill as well as gaining more and more knowledge about our field.
The essence of writing in research is to convince readers or people to accept or follow what we propose in the writing. That is why in academic writing for journals, conferences and other technical articles, we are required to present our results or findings with comparisons to other previous results or methods. We need to show that our result or method somehow are better or at least more useful compared to the other previous results/methods. And also, we need to present findings, with factual evidences, that are useful for people to build their next research on top of the findings. For example, we show that our method can improve the accuracy of results with smaller number of experiments or shorter experiment running time. Moreover, we want to convince people what is the next direction or future works to do based on our findings.
To convince people about our writing, we need to write consistently, concisely (including no repetition of explanation) and clearly (including accuracy). I will give one example for each of them for clarity:
“The fuel consumption of a normal petrol car is 32 mpg. However, with the hybrid technology, the fuel consumption of a vehicle becomes 55 mpg”. In this case, we have to use either both “car” or both “vehicle”.
“Measurements is used to carry the verification of tolerances. The measurement uses a coordinate measuring machine”. In this case it is better “Measurements carried out to verify tolerances use a coordinate measuring machine”.
“The sample used in the experiment which is kept freezing at zero degree Celsius becomes brittle”. In this case, the one who is kept freezing is the experiment. In fact, we want to say that the sample is that is kept freezing. So, we must write the sentence as: “The sample which is kept freezing at zero degree Celsius and is used in the experiment becomes brittle”.
In research, writing helps us to practice organising our idea or thought in a good order, in other way, it develops our systematic way of thinking. This systematic thinking will later help us in doing presentations (in conferences, group meeting or other scientific events).
In research, no matter how good our method or data findings are, they are not useful unless we can present those results in written media, such as journal article, conference papers and chapters in a book and convince readers, with our writing, that our method or data can be used by them to continue their further research or to support their current activity (for example improving their production efficiency in manufacturing industry).
I have seen many articles with good proposed methods are not necessary used or followed by other people due to the articles are difficult to read and follow. A quick sign of an article is written well is that we can rapidly understand what the article presents without the need of re-reading the article many times.
To end, learning the reading and writing skills is hard, but absolutely doable for everyone. It is a lifelong continuous learning for everyone, including those who have the skills. What we need is practice and practice and if possible, inputs from other people that already have the skills above us.
So, keep reading and writing!