Monday, February 20, 2012

On Sort Of Keeping Up

Back in the days of paper journals and treks to the library (in the cold/heat, rain/snow, at the risk of being hit in the head with the various projectiles that students like to toss to each other on campus lawns), I loved going to the library on the day that new issues of my favorite science journals were put out on the special shelf for new arrivals. It was very exciting to gaze at the Tables Of Contents and graze in the abstracts of articles that looked promising.

Some articles were so interesting that I sat right down and read them there. Exciting and important articles were photocopied for intensive reading and re-reading later (not to mention filing!), using an ever-changing array of photocopy machines with various options that were useful/bizarre and that accepted/did-not-accept coins or special cards that you could only get in a certain place at a certain time, and so on. And then there was the challenge of finding a machine that didn't have a grad student photocopying an entire journal or book for hours on end. Those were thrilling days.

The thrill continues, even without the extra stimulation of photocopying, but now of course the lists of new papers arrive electronically and we can all read the relevant journals from just about anywhere. That is really great for many reasons, but it is particularly nice for those of us who travel a lot. I was thinking about this recently because I have been doing so much traveling this term, and yet my selected electronic alerts keep coming, helping me keep up. Without the awesome electronic access we have today, it would be very hard to keep up with all the journals that I typically read (or at least glance at, to see if there is anything new and interesting).

I admit that sometimes when my inbox is filling up, I sigh a bit when I see a dozen or more emails from various journals. But I do not delete them! I keep them until I have time to look at them, and then I am glad that they are there to help me sort through the new journal issues. I am sure I miss some articles, but of course there are other awesome electronic ways to seek them out later and fill in gaps in reading.

As my inbox was recently filling up with alerts that I did not have time to look at right away, I realized I had not quantified my journal-reading in a while. Hence my questions:
  • How many journals do you read (look at) routinely
  • How likely are you to find a paper that you want to (and do) read in one or more of them, each time there is a new issue?
And some qualitative questions:
  • Do you enjoy reading the literature of your field? That is, do you feel a sense of happy anticipation when looking at new titles, or do you feel oppressed? Do you hope that there will be a paper of interest, or are you glad when there is not?
My answers:

I routinely look at 20-25 journals, and there are quite a few other journals that I look at, but less often (and for which I don't get alerts). That number is probably low compared to some (sub)fields, but I am glad it is not higher.

The answer to the second question varies by journal of course, as there are some journals that always have something of interest to me, and others that only do now and then. But there are some journals that always or very often have something of interest, so there is something new to read every time I look. Some papers might just get an abstract-read, some will get a full-body skim, and some will get an in-depth read, depending on my time and interest. I give myself a B/B+ for effort.

The information onslaught is overwhelming no matter how diligent one is about looking at new publications as they are flung out by the various publishing geysers, but I think it is important to try to keep up. I wish I could read more -- and more broadly -- than I do (oh for those carefree graduate and postdoctoral days..), but I still find searching and reading the literature very enjoyable, and not a chore, despite the relentless deluge of new papers. I am happy when there is a new paper of interest to read.


Anonymous said...

Looking through my gmail/journals tag, I get about 300 emails per month alerting me to new papers. Some of those alerts list just one paper, others have links to 2 or 3 journals. I work at the boundary between a few different fields, so there are at least 3 'domains' of journals I need to follow.

I am starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by all these alerts (I try to keep the unread count below 100). In particular, the new generalist open access journals (PlosOne etc) publish too many papers organised in categories that are much to broad. So I end up not reading any of them.

I wish someone would build a search / alert tool that let me get refine my alerts to much more specific topics / authors. I'm sure it could be done.

Gautam Menon said...

I use the condensed matter archive postings as my guide to the literature - this amounts to reading around 40 abstracts per day. In addition, I look at the predominant scientific journal in my field once in a week or so as well as 2 standard high IF ones with a broader scope. Given a choice, I would read only the condensed matter archive, since increasingly most things I find interesting are posted there first.

Clix said...

I teach at the high school level, and I'd like to read journals, but the subscriptions are SO expensive! A single one costs as much as two weeks' grocery bills. Are you able to subscribe through your university library? Or - how do you afford it?!

studyzone said...

I have bookmarks to TOCs of journals that I peruse most frequently (29 primary research, 10 review journals, 9 educational research). I also get weekly PubMed updates on two different search terms. In the fall, I will be moving from the well-stocked library at my current postdoc institution to a small primarily-undergrad school, where I will have direct access to only 10 of the above journals. I will be making frequent trips to the library of the state uni across town, so it will seem like old times.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

Looking through the TOC of new issues of journals (and then reading some articles--or even just downloading them to read later) is part of what has kept me from quitting academia. It's always been the thing that filled me with excitement and joy--at what was happening in my field; at what my colleagues and frenemies were saying; at what I could bring in to my courses. Losing myself in journals is pretty important to me.

That said, I stopped getting electronic alerts a long time ago--doesn't really work with my email flow and I found that what I did was archive them and never look at them again. Instead, I go directly to the journals I read (about 20) once a quarter and look through the most recent issues and download what I want for later.

Anonymous said...

I've fallen seriously behind on reading my emailed ToC since I started seriously trying to finish my thesis... Hoping to be able to get back into it once I defend.

As for whether I enjoy it? Well... depends on how paranoid I am feeling. When I have papers about to be submitted sometimes I get seriously paranoid that I'm about to get scooped and then irrationally stop reading ToC. It's a bad habit though. It's not like not reading ToC will keep them from being published.

Anonymous said...

I have google reader RSS feeds for articles that come up in PubMed -my search program of choice- based on a varitey of keywords, journal titles, authors, etc. (To the first commenter, this can be done and is worth the initial effort.) Once I had this set up, I unsubscribed to all email updates from journals. For me, I feel much less overwhelmed if everything is filed away in my google reader and not cluttering my inbox

Anonymous said...

As an astronomer, I check astro-ph daily every evening. It's fun scrolling through the 40-80 papers per day & clicking through on maybe 10-20%, scanning abstracts & then reading the paper.
It's fun & gives me a sense of where our many subfields are heading. Often it gives me a chance to check out other sub-fields & take some approaches from these fields & apply them to my own. I get ideas too & often send comments to authors of papers (particularly if I catch something they might have missed or overlooked). Ideas & collaboration have come about from this. So, for me it's 1. fun 2. useful 3. productive.

Since it's arXiv, it doesn't matter which journal the paper is published in. There is a hierarchy of course & ApJ, MNRAS accepted papers will tend to get read before obscure journals. We only have a small number of journals (ApJ,MN, A&A, AJ, Icarus, PASP) but a large number of papers.

Morgan Price said...

I get table of contents from 22 journals. Their relevance to me varies widely but on average I might read 3 abstracts, be interested enough to skim the actual paper for 1 of them, and be excited enough to read most of the paper for ~0.1 of them. Sometimes it feels like a bit much, but there's also lots of papers that seem pretty cool even if I never make it past the abstract. If I'm busy that day I'll probably feel relieved if there's nothing that I "have to read."i

Anonymous said...

I use Google reader. I have feeds for a dozen journals and also feeds that alert me to articles published with specific keywords (and a few feeds for articles citing papers I've published). The keyword feeds are the worst. I get ~300 articles/week for one topic--it's a hot subject studied in different ways by groups in different fields. That said, I have to thank my thorough skimming for alerting me to the existence of an awesome dataset and sparking a key collaboration when I was a grad student.

Now I just get distressed, though. Between my own research and skimming titles/abstracts, I feel like I hardly have time to do the deep reading. I'm a postdoc and would love to hear from senior researchers who feel like they have struck a successful balance.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how you find time to read all of that! I'm overwhelmed at trying to keep up with a paper a week.

Anonymous said...

I have a handful of saved PubMed searches where the new results are sent to me every week. Each search is very tailored to either a subject or a set of people (careful refinement of search terms). I also have several handfuls' worth of TOCs which skip my inbox and go straight to a "TOCs" folder, which I haven't opened in a very long time. I also read Nature & Science every week, more for the global science and policy and news perspectives than the science itself (the science in N&S that matters to me turns up in my tailored searches anyway).

Anonymous said...

I get automated ToC for 2 or 3 journals, and I look at those briefly. I rarely read any of the papers. I might read a few abstracts.

Basically I read almost nothing beyond abstracts any more except for:

1. Papers I have to review;
2. Papers by those few scientists whose work I follow because it is reliably good and in my primary areas of interest;
3. Papers my attention is drawn to because someone tells me about them, or because I see the author present something interesting at a conference.

This is why going to conferences is so important. The amount of stuff being written is totally overwhelming and impossible to keep up with. On the other hand if you go to conferences you learn (much more quickly) that the amount of truly new and exciting stuff is a very small fraction of that.

I should add that I was a voracious reader of the literature as a student and postdoc. So it's not that I don't like reading papers. I am a full prof now (on the youngish side for that rank, for what it's worth) and it has just become not an effective use of time to do that any more.

Kate of Oz said...

My mentor once told me that an afternoon of reading is worth six months in the lab... and I agree!! I need to get into a routine of reading regularly (i.e. daily) rather than in spurts (i.e. every few weeks).

Anonymous said...

I tried the RSS feeds and it wasn't working for me - for some reason once they were in there I vacillated between stress that I hadn't read them and then feeling satisfied because I had them on file so surely I would get to them soon(go figure). Now I look up the TOC for journals ~weekly and read abstracts and save what's interesting for later full reading (which gets worked through more slowly than I'd like but...). I have mixed feelings on the broader process too - on the one hand I LOVE reading new papers and feel inspired by them, except when I feel overwhelmed and like I'm not keeping up in either my reading or publishing. I know - there's no pleasing me. Maybe after tenure I'll feel more the first way - hopefully.

Anonymous said...

Let's see. Currently I have 26 messages in my inbox (about half the total) that are TOCs, which come from ~10 journals. They date back to August - the beginning of the fall semester, when I had a new prep and 2 independent study students. I'm at a point now where TOCs depress me because at least half of them will have at least one paper from someone who got their Ph.D. the same time I did. I know their success has nothing to do with me and that i'm making reasonable progress but still they mostly make me panicky.

Anonymous said...

I use Web of Science's Citation Alerts to get a list of papers who cites papers I consider to be solid work. Still generates a lot, but many of the papers are relevant to my interests.

Whoosh said...

I have maybe 10 journal email alerts, which cover most of my field. I usually look them through as soon as I get them and select what sounds interesting for me and as well for one or the other PhD student, who work in similar fields. And I'm always excited if I find some new work of a close colleague. How many papers are actually worth reading and filing varies a lot. Sometimes none from all the journals, sometimes 10 in one alone. The interesting publications seem to cluster sometimes - odd.
Additionally, I have a set of ground-breaking publications where I check once in a while in Web of Science if they were cited n a new paper. I really can get lost in checking through the citation lists, jumping from one paper to the other.

Anonymous said...

One more voice for the pubmed RSS feeds + Google Reader solution. I am sympathetic to the commenters who still feel like this provides an overwhelming number of articles.

My solution is to basically triage article reading temporarily: I tend to set my search terms on the general side, but then "star" the ones that are actually relevant (out of 300ish articles a week, maybe 10-15 truly worth being aware of. I try to do this every couple of weeks - usually when a "must read" paper comes out.

Then, I download these starred articles to Mendeley. Then, when I actually want to learn more about a topic, I go straight to Mendeley and enter a given search term, and then read the relevant articles that I have essentially curated for myself.

I don't do much "constant" reading with this approach, that is, I sometimes go weeks without attending to the literature at all other than "starring" abstracts for later perusal. That is a downside. But for me, it is a workable solution in the face of a deluge of papers, and it does keep me abreast of the most recent literature.

Anonymous said...

As somebody whose work interacts with a number of different fields, I have no idea how people identify what the relevant literature is, much less try to keep up with particular feeds.

I tend to depend on a mix of conferences, tracking particular colleagues, reviewing/editing, and things people toss at me as "you should read this, it might be relevant."

To those who are in more neatly defined disciplines: is it actually possible for you to look at a journal and say something like, "Oh, that's the Journal of Left-Handed RetroPhenoChromoDynamics, so I can ignore everything in it because I work on only Right-Handed RetroPhenoChromoDynamics"?