How to ‘read around the subject’

How often have you heard someone – a teacher, a lecturer, a careers advisor – say that you need to ‘read around the subject’? Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what do they mean? What are you supposed to read? What are you supposed to be getting out of it?

Our top tips guide to reading around the subject is here to get you started. Your journey into the amazing world of science is only just beginning…


Reading around the subject - you can do it anywhere.

Reading around the subject – you can do it anywhere.

So what is ‘reading around the subject’?

If you are asked to read around the subject, you’re expected to find and read additional material in support of your learning.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be just reading. Attending lectures or watching them online, listening to podcasts and attending science festivals are all great ways to discover fascinating new areas of biology and deepen your understanding.

Why do teachers and lecturers ask you to do it?

Reading around the subject is important to your overall success because it

  • Helps you to make sense of the topics that you are studying in class or in your lectures
  • Keeps you up to date with current biological research
  • Informs, inspires and challenges  you to find out more

Okay, sounds good. How do I get started?

There is a lot of biological information out there and a lot of it is mind- bogglingly technical!

If you type a scientific term into Google, you may find that you get a lot of results from scientific journals that assume more knowledge than you have so far. Many scientific journals are behind a pay wall, and you may have to pay a substantial amount to read them if your college or University doesn’t already subscribe.

So tracking down easily accessible resources that are at an appropriate depth for your level of study can be a daunting task.

We’ve put together some sources of information that you may find useful if you are studying A-level Biology, Scottish Higher Biology or are a first year Biological science undergraduate. (NB This is not an exhaustive list!).

Resources that can help you to make sense of the topics that you are studying in class.

Text books and Web resources written for your course and endorsed by your exam board.

These can be used to make extra notes and provide alternative diagrams, graphs and practice questions. Your teacher will let you know which exam board and specification you are studying and recommend the best course text books.

Magazines and web resources relevant to your course.

Recommended Magazines

  1. Biological Sciences Review. This magazine is written specifically for students of A level Biology, Scottish Higher Biology and first year Biological Sciences undergraduates.  It is highly readable and bridges the gap between your text books and scientific journals. There is a charge for subscribing to the magazine.  An archive of articles from previous issues can be found on the magazine’s website.
  2. Big Picture. This is a free magazine produced by the Wellcome Trust. It is written for post 16 Biology students and explores the innovations and implications of cutting edge biomedical science. Visit the website to access previous issues.

Recommended web resources

  1. Cells Alive. Animations, images and interactives about cell biology.
  2. DNA Interactive. Video footage and animations that bring our understanding of DNA replication and expression to life.
  3. Learn.Genetics. Animations and interactives that bring genetics, bioscience and health to life.

Resources that can help you to keep up to date with current biological research

  1. New Scientist This is a weekly science magazine that keeps you up to date with what’s new in science. If you wish to become a subscriber, you will have to pay, but your school or college may already subscribe. Ask your teacher or learning resource manager.
  2. Nature. This is an international weekly journal of science.
  3. BBC Science and Environment news. Keep up to date  with science and environment news as it happens. or via the BBC News phone App.
  4. BBC Health news. This provides breaking news from the world of human health and can also be found on the BBC News App.

Resources to inform, inspire and challenge  you


Popular science reading books

Here is a small selection.

  1. The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Alice Roberts. Alice Roberts combines embryology, genetics, anatomy, evolution and zoology to tell the incredible story of the human body
  2. The Epigenetics Revolution, Nessa Carey. A fascinating introduction to epigenetics. If you enjoy this, follow up with Seed to Seed (see below).
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot. How one woman’s cancer cells changed the medical world forever, and because a multi-million dollar industry.
  4. Bad Science, Ben Goldacre.  Looking objectively at popular science reporting.
  5. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan. A very different approach to science writing, Michael Pollan turns our normal perspective on its head to consider how plants manipulate humans.
  6. Almost Like A Whale, Steve Jones. Using contemporary science to update Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species”.
  7. Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, Holly Tucker. The dramatic history of blood transfusions, from 17th century France onwards.
  8. Seed to Seed, Nicholas Harberd. A research scientist tells the story of ten years of discovery in his own laboratory. A very valuable insight into contemporary genetics and epigenetics research, and what it means to be a scientist.
  9. Calculus Diaries, Jennifer Ouellette. A non-mathematician finds out how maths can help you tackle anything – even a zombie apocalypse.
  10. Life Ascending, Nick Lane. Where does DNA come from? How did the eye evolve? A reconstruction of evolutionary history through ten of its greatest landmarks.
  11. Genome, Matt Ridley.  23 human chromosomes in 23 chapters.
  12. The Energy of Life, Guy Brown.  Introduction to the cutting-edge science of Bioenergetics


IntoBiology videos

See our own collection of videos about the latest research in biology

TED talks

The best ideas from the TED conferences.

AoB Blog

If you want to try your hand at reading ‘papers’ (research articles) from a leading scientific journal, the AoB blog is an excellent place to start. The editorial team highlight selected papers from each issue and write a short blog post introducing the paper and giving it some context. This will really help you as you begin reading the paper. They even make many of the papers free, including all articles over 12 months old.

Naked Scientists

Audience interactive radio talk show bought to you by a team of scientists, doctors and communicators.


Games and simulations based on Nobel prize- winning achievements.

Remember:  Biology is an endlessly fascinating subject.  Reading around it will allow you to get to know the subject, not just the facts!