Keeping up with the literatures


Keep up. Keep up. Don’t get behind. When I hear these words I immediately want to rebel. What’s really wrong with being a bit behind?

Keeping up with what’s being published takes time and effort. Do you really, really need to do it? Well, in relation to your specific research, yes. It’s always helpful to know what other people are doing on and around the topic you are enmeshed in. Knowing the field helps you focus your own work.

But – and here’s the rub – it’s not a bad idea to keep up with a few other topics you’re interested in. Being on top of a topic means you can take up opportunities as they arise, as well as make interesting connections with other people. And you never know you may find unexpected links with your current work.

However, searching journals takes time. And then you have to organise and save what you find. And that’s before you even get to the reading. It’s the reading that takes longest. It’s not surprising that, when there are so many other pressing things to do, keeping up with the literatures is one of the things that often slides to the bottom of the to do list.

But many of us search and save. But we become victim to what’s called the PDF alibi syndrome – we find and download a PDF without reading it and that’s the evidence we use to tell ourselves that we are keeping up. It’s a strategy for keeping-up the appearance of keeping-up.

A partial counter to not keeping up, or storing a load of papers that you mean to read sometime but don’t, is a reading routine. A reading routine that works for you.

I have a keeping-up reading routine which I set up during my PhD. It’s got easier to maintain over the years, partly because the routine is now an ingrained habit, but also because the tools now available are better.

So here’s what I do. My imperfect keeping-up routine in seven steps.

  1. Limit your ambition. I draw a boundary around the areas where I am going to try to stay current. This means not only having a pretty good sense of what my current research needs but also a sense of what I might want to develop in the future.
  2. Identify key journals. Academic publishing is vast. There are new journals starting all the time. You can’t cover everything. I focus on the major journals as well as some that often have interesting and off piste takes. And because my areas of interest cross disciplines my list includes journals outside of my own field. I’ve developed this list over time of course and its based in part on what I’ve used. But my list isn’t static and I’m always happy to get rid of some titles and substitute others.
  3. Get automatic notices of new things published. I used to subscribe to journal alerts. You can still do this and I do maintain a couple of journal alerts for non-mainstream journals. However, these days I rely on an app that my university provides – Browzine. Browzine allows you to choose journals that your institution subscribes to. The app organises your journal choices in four bookcases each of which has four shelves of four books. So a total of 64 journals in all. And best of all, the app signals when there are new papers published. You go to your desktop and see the red alert. Hello, something new has come in.
  4. Survey the alerts for papers of interest. The Browzine app has something new for me nearly every day. I set aside ten minutes every couple of days to have a quick look at the latest. I don’t spend a lot of time doing this.
  5. Save only the most interesting. I read the titles of the papers I’m interested in – there’s usually only one or two a week. If the title doesn’t suggest that there is something in the paper for me, I ignore it . ( So you can see why what you say in titles is critical in this kind of environment.) I read the abstracts of the papers that look particularly interesting. I save those papers in another Browzine feature – my articles. My articles is your personal little library. I have set up several categories in my articles and I store copies in there. So my articles is a lot like files of PDFs.
  6. Put relevant papers in a bibliographic data base. Browzine exports to the most common bibliographic software. So as I read an abstract, I look only for papers that I think are immediately helpful – and I often read a bit more of those there and then. I export my selection of immediately useful papers to Endnote and add a couple of tags. I am pretty ruthless in selecting. I don’t store a lot. After all, if in future I’m into a particular topic in more depth then I can always go back to my articles where I know more are stored. They aren’t lost to me. And they’re a new starting point.
  7. Widen the net. I supplement the Browzine process by subscribing to a range of social media channels and groups where people in my fields share papers that they have written or papers they find helpful.

Now my approach is probably only marginally better than keeping all the PDFs in a folder or set of folders. But I have gone through a bit of a screening and sorting process and have put some of the papers into my referencing system. And once the papers are in the referencing software they can be searched, copied and pasted, noted etc.

But perhaps the key thing in keeping-up is actually not what I do so much as the regular routine. I look regularly – but not for long.

You don’t have to do what I do. You could use my steps based on alerts or another system of your own. What matters is how often you do it. And how little time you can put into doing something useful. That’s the key, often and little.

I check Browzine every couple of days and I set aside ten minutes at night for that specific purpose. I could equally find time in the morning or when I am eating my lunch. I just happen to find the evening the right time for me. But that little look at what’s being published is good. I have a sense of what people are writing about and that’s useful. As are the restricted set of semi-read, stored papers.

So that’s my process, what’s yours? Perhaps if you have other handy hints for keeping up you could write them in the comments.

A note on the app – It’s pluses and minuses. Browzine does give me/you access to loads of other journals besides those in your selected book cases. So it’s a pretty handy way to quickly access papers you come across randomly. But it also has some drawbacks – you can’t search. You can’t share your articles very easily with someone else. Well, if you can do these things I haven’t sorted out how. and they’re not immediately obvious. If I was designing this app I’d get those two things sorted. But you also can’t cut and paste from the app into word. You have to go through bibliographic software in order to do these things – and it’d be pretty handy to make this seamless too