How does one know what is worthwhile, and what is not?
There is no shortcut to this. It comes with subject matter knowledge and with experience.
“Fortune favors the prepared mind”
This article from Science magazine provides a good explanation. It was written by Julian West, who was a graduate student of organic chemistry at Princeton University at the time of writing. To quote from his own words:
He had just finished his first project and realized that his lab methods had limitations. Based on some “surprising” sources, he came up with an unusual proposal for advancing past the obstacles he encountered.
He was reading two journals: Inorganic Chemistry and The Journal of Physical Chemistry. Although the difference between organic chemistry and these two journals may seem small to a non-chemist, to specialists they are practically different planets.
The authors of these papers had given little thought to whether their results had much bearing on the field of organic chemistry, but Julian recognized their implications for his work.
As Julian explains: I aggressively curate and monitor the notifications I receive about newly published papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if they’re not directly related to my research. Then, if I find an interesting string of references in a paper I’m reading, I’ll follow where it leads. That’s how I found my way to those decades-old papers.
He casts his intellectual net widely to develop a broad foundation, allowing him to see his research from multiple angles. Given the limited hours in each day, it can be tempting to read narrowly, but doing so would ultimately limit the kinds of connections that can be drawn.
As he concluded his Ph.D., he recalls that “time and time again, strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a result that had been bugging me for weeks. These are my favorite moments in research; the thrill of finally fitting disparate pieces together is tough to beat.”
Julian articulates very well one of the key best practices of innovation, and you can read his full paper here:
Julian G. West, “Fortune favors the well read” Science 10 Mar 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6329, pp. 1090, DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6329.1090
I have my own story from graduate school.
We had a course in physical organic chemistry that featured no text books. At the beginning of the course, the professor handed us a thick stack of papers, photocopies of over 100 different recent journal articles.
The course was about discussing the importance of each paper and what it had to contribute to the field of physical organic chemistry.
I saw no discernible pattern from one article to the next. Every concept was new.
To young graduate students, each paper was incredibly difficult to understand. We were unable to have any at-length discussion about them. The exam was a nightmare. We were given a new set of recent journal publications that we had never seen before, and we had to discuss them.
Shortly thereafter, when I started my job as a research scientist at DuPont, one of the company’s Research Fellows told me to always read patents. This was necessary to understand the state-of-the-art and in order to carry out good research.
Every week, 3 to 5 booklets of patent abstracts arrived at my desk. It was impossible to read even a fraction of that. One had to scan quickly.
What I discovered eventually was that this was about pattern recognition. We had to synthesize everything we knew to-date and use that to make sense of new reports.
This does not become possible until one reaches a tipping point or a critical mass of background to allow this to happen.
When I switched to biotech, I again had to start this entire process over again of reading widely in a new field before topics started to make sense.
How does one understand the business implications? Again, it is about casting a wide net and reading about the business in your industry.
Only then will important items become discernible.