A while back we invited readers to ask us anything. Here are our answers to the next question. We’ve paraphrased for brevity, click through to see the original.
How do you stay up to date with new papers and books in your field? Also, how do you store your references? (from Karin)
Jeremy: Re: keeping up with the literature, it varies, everyone does what works for them. Which for most people is some mix of traditional methods, like skimming journal ToCs, and newer methods like Google Scholar recommendations, recommendations from people on Twitter, etc. My advice is do what works for you. By all means try out different methods, especially if you feel like your current methods aren’t working for you any more. Ignore anyone who overgeneralizes from their own example and tells you you’re Doing It Wrong if you don’t filter the literature as they do. (Unfortunately, people will tell you this. More than one person has gotten weirdly upset with me on old comment threads for still using traditional filters like “keep an eye on what’s been published in leading selective journals”.)
Maybe also think about what it means to “keep up with the literature” or “stay up to date”. Think about why you read–what you’re looking to get out of it. For instance, I’m a community ecologist, but I make no attempt to keep up with all community ecology! Nor do I try to read all and only those papers on the topics on which I currently happen to work (spatial synchrony, the Price equation…). Rather, I read to keep the flow of new ideas coming into my head, and maintain my sense of where the field of ecology is going. Given the purposes for which I read, it makes sense for me to stay up to date mostly by skimming the ToCs of leading journals in general science, biology, ecology, evolution, and philosophy of science. I read the abstracts of papers that strike my fancy because of their titles and/or authors. Those papers include but definitely aren’t limited to papers on topics on which I currently work. And then if the paper sounds really interesting/important/up my alley, I read the whole thing, carefully (I rarely skim papers). I supplement this by looking at Google Scholar recommendations, by occasionally following up interesting-sounding references I happen across by chance, and by serving as a reviewer. I’m sure I miss some things that I would’ve wanted to read had I known about them. But that’d be true for any filtering method, so there’s no point worrying about it. As I said, all this works for me, but your mileage may vary.
Lately I’ve found myself getting antsy about how much time it takes me to skim journal ToCs, so I’m considering trying to set up some combination of keyword & author searches instead. I’m worried that this will unduly narrow my reading, so I’ll probably try it out in parallel with my existing system before I commit to it.
Possibly, at some point in future the whole idea of “keeping up with the literature” will become obsolete. But I doubt it. Science is a collective enterprise, so scientists will always have an interest in (i) reading the “best” stuff, where “best” is defined according to some criterion more universal than “whatever I personally happen to like”, and (ii) reading what other people are reading. So the methods by which scientists “keep up with the literature” will change, but I think scientists will still “keep up with the literature”. I have some old posts on this.
For books, I mostly browse the publisher booths at the ESA meeting every year and buy whatever strikes my fancy. And then try and mostly fail to get around to reading them.
I’m a terrible person to ask about how to store and organize references, because I do it in my head. I’ve never used reference management software (I twice purchased Endnote and then never used it). I believe I’m unusual in this. I keep waiting for somebody to tell me “I use reference management software X, it’s totally awesome, you should try it”, but I’ve never heard anyone rave about reference management software. Everyone I talk to seems to think of their own reference management software as the least bad option from a bad bunch. So the floor is open: which reference management software should Marin–and I!–use?
Brian: Jeremy covered most of the general issues, so I’ll just add what I specifically do:
- Getting electronic table of contents emailed to me from about my 10 favorite journals and skimming them when they come in. I will typically follow links to 3 or 4 articles and open the PDFS. I will skim the abstracts and print out 1-3 and put in my to read pile. I mostly read the to read pile on airplanes and when I have a lunch when I need a break from teaching and admin (since lunch is not exactly prime time for deep research).
- Google scholar – I took the time to tell Google Scholar my papers (i.e .created a profile). It now gives me very on target recommendations which I treat like #1
- Editing and reviewing – this might sound like cheating, but I do much reading through these routes. And the papers are all hand picked to be relevant to me and I get to say no when I want.
- Pick a subset of books (conferences like ESA where all the publishers are showing their wares is a good place) and actually read them. I try to read ~3 graduate/monograph level books a year (although lately I’ve been punching this goal through reviewing as well).
As for reference management, I have been using Endnote since my graduate student days. Its so easy. Find the paper in Google Scholar. Click on the Citation/Endnote link and its into Endnote permanently. Then hit Alt+2 and wham its in my paper and the bibliography is automatically formatted. There are plenty of other packages out there that are equally good or better. I’m not going to argue Mendeley vs Endnote vs etc. I use the one I have familiarity with. But unlike Jeremy, to me it is inconceivable not to use some reference manager. It saves me hours of a job that I would find incredibly unpleasant (typing bibliographies). That said, when I was in grad school I typed in every paper I read into endnote. Now I wait until I need to actually cite a paper and then just pull it in.
And just a note on what it means to keep up with the literature. For me you have to do several distinct things:
- Expose yourself to things outside your field
- Skim broadly within your field
- Read deeply a subset of papers (and books) (primarily within your field)
It seems to me a lot of people are over focused on #2 these days but I strongly believe #1 and #3 are very important.