When you need to find papers on a specific topic, you search the literature. Maybe a Google Scholar search, maybe a search of databases like Web of Science or PubMed, whatever. The point is, you have some idea of what you’re looking for, so you can search for it.
But what if you don’t know what you’re looking for? At least not with sufficient precision to do a search? What if you’re just looking for “papers I’ll find interesting, even if they’re on topics I didn’t realize I’d find interesting”? Or “papers that I should probably read in order to remain broadly-informed about what’s going on in ecology”? Reading for these purposes is very important to me, not just because I enjoy it, but because I’m sure I’d come up with fewer and poorer scientific research ideas if I didn’t do it.*
I’m old, and so I mostly skim the tables of content of a bunch of journals to identify papers I might find interesting. Brian does the same thing. I also periodically check what Google Scholar recommends for me (basically, it’s an automated recommendation engine that recommends papers for you to read, by loosely matching to the topics that you’ve published on yourself). And occasionally I’ll run across a citation that sounds interesting, and go read it. That’s pretty much it. I’m not on social media, so don’t find any papers that way. I don’t read Faculty of 1000 Prime. And while the blogs I read sometimes discuss published papers, they’re almost always either papers I have no desire to read or papers I already knew about, so I don’t find any papers that way (I do find other sorts of reading material via blogs). And conversations and correspondence with colleagues very rarely involves them saying to me “Have you seen this new paper?”, so I don’t find papers that way. My approach works for me. But presumably it wouldn’t work for everyone, which is what this post is about. (Just as an aside, when I need to find papers on a specific topic, I search for them, just like everyone else. But that’s not what this post is about.)
I’m sure my approach misses some stuff I’d be interested in if I found it. But so would any approach. Plus, I lack the time to read as much as I’d like in as much detail as I’d like, so the rate at which I read interesting-looking papers isn’t limited by my ability to find such papers. So I’m not too bothered by the fact that my approach is likely to miss some papers I might find interesting. For instance, I’m only likely to find papers in Plos One or other unselective, high-volume journals if Google Scholar recommends them to me, or if they concern a topic on which I’m searching.
I have the impression that a small but growing number of ecologists not only filter the literature using different methods than me, but with different goals. That increasingly, people are focusing their reading on papers they already knew they wanted to read, thereby enabling them to search for such papers (or set up automated filters to alert them to such papers, which amounts to the same thing as searching). And mostly don’t read anything else. That is, they only read stuff that can be searched for. I’ve even heard people say that the whole idea of “keeping up with the literature” is a quaint, outdated notion, because the literature these days is far too large and growing far too fast for that.
But those are totally anecdotal impressions. In an attempt to get
some data more anecdotes, here’s a little two-question survey. Tell us, how do you find papers to read when you’re not looking for papers on a specific topic?
I’ll share the results in a future post.
*Throughout the post, by “read” I don’t necessarily mean “read in great detail”. The closeness with which you read a given paper is orthogonal to whether or not you found the paper by searching for it.