ew aspects of scientific work may be as crucial—and yet as easy to neglect—as reading the literature. Beginning a new research project or writing a grant application can be good opportunities for extensive literature searches, but carving out time to keep abreast of newly published papers on a regular basis is often challenging. The task is all the more daunting today, with the already vast literature continuing to grow at head-spinning speed.
To help you keep track of the literature and avoid feeling too overwhelmed, Science Careers asked scientists in a diverse range of fields to discuss how they integrate searching for papers, and reading them, into their working routine. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
To keep on top of my specialty area, I carry out regular, systematic literature searches using a tool called PubCrawler. PubCrawler automatically searches online publication databases using key search terms that I set up, and it sends me a weekly email highlighting all the new and potentially relevant papers, with a link to the abstract or full text. I find out about other recently published papers I ought to read from email alerts I get from the key journals in my area. I also become aware of new publications through colleagues who email me, and from social media. Twitter is an underutilized resource in science, but it’s great—if you follow the right people—for keeping your finger on the pulse of new work that is coming out.
Regarding finding the time, unless I am actively writing a grant or paper, it is harder for me to keep up with the literature, because it’s not an urgent, immediate, deadline-driven need. So I have a set time once a week, on Mondays, to look at the output of my literature searching tools. I sift through it all and then at least skim the papers that I find most relevant. I read journals’ tables of contents when I get them, usually also immediately downloading and at least skimming the papers that I find of most interest. Thorough reading of the full papers may be more sporadic.
For general background reading in my field, I usually start by looking at new articles that have cited my work, as the likelihood that I am interested in what they have to write about is much higher. Similarly, I look at both recent and past citations to papers I found interesting to find further reading. For more targeted literature searches, Google—both Google Scholar and just the normal search bar—and PubMed are great. If I am moving into a new area, I usually contact colleagues, including people I know through conferences, and ask them if they have recommendation lists for me.
I find that, nowadays, searching for past literature is the easy part. Search engines and Google Scholar, together with other tools which allow users to follow citations, do a good job. If discipline-specific conferences or journals exist, I also go through the papers published in them, going at least 5 years back. What I find much more challenging is how to organize the works that I read and knowledge I acquire, and how to search back through them. I first set up a dedicated digital database using existing tools. Mendeley is a well-known example; I myself use JabRef. Then I archive hard copies of most of the papers I read, with the main contributions written on their front page. It is of no use going through a bunch of papers if you are unable to remember what you read in them.
For historical searches, I usually start with PubMed, searching terms that make the most sense to me and expanding my scope of those search terms if I get limited results. Once I have a selection of key or index papers for a topic of interest, I pull the relevant papers cited within them. I also find out which papers later cited my index papers, for example by finding them on Google Scholar. Often, through this process, I am able to develop new search terms to use in PubMed, so I may then again start the whole process iteratively.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the flow of information. The decision to be made is one of sensitivity versus specificity. I tend to prioritize specificity (whether the papers I find are on target for me) and accept lower sensitivity (I’m not going to find everything that could potentially be relevant). I have drawn a line that makes sense for me based on the principle of diminishing returns. Of course, where exactly to draw this line is likely different for everyone.
Regarding how to make sure nothing crucial escapes my attention, I try to send links to papers that I find to colleagues and students whom I think might be interested in them, given what I know about their work. My hope is that, in turn, they will send things that they come across to me too, and then perhaps I will miss less. I also find that, when I am writing grants and papers and engaging in more thorough systematic literature reviews, I can catch up on things I may have missed.
It is important to be exposed to ideas and approaches from other disciplines, but there can be an overwhelming amount of information if we try to read everything that gets published, and sometimes it is difficult to know where to draw the line. I prioritize the papers that are directly related to my own projects, especially when I am writing literature reviews for publications or grant proposals. I also prioritize reading papers from the top journals in my main research areas to keep on top of which topics and methods are at the frontier of knowledge. And then if I have some spare time, I also try to read papers that are a little bit further from my main research topics.
There are certainly some times when you have that “I can’t believe I missed this paper” moment. But usually, if the papers are important enough, you will eventually find out about them through conference presentations, conversations with colleagues, Twitter, blogs, magazines, or other channels. You just hope you don’t have that moment when reading a report from a referee who isn’t happy that you missed an important citation!
Young scientists sometimes tend to neglect the literature. They look at a number of related papers when they start working on their project, but then they fail to keep looking for more papers as their research—and the work of other researchers—progresses. They also rarely go back to the literature they’ve searched and read, even though it remains a great source of inspiration.
Talk to librarians! Depending on their area of expertise, they may be able to give you specific advice about accessing important papers or navigating the scientific literature. Even if they don’t have specific subject area knowledge, librarians are an often-untapped source of knowledge about how scholarly information is organized, evaluated, and disseminated.
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