If you’re a researcher, whether you’re a graduate student starting out or a seasoned scientist, keeping up with the literature is hard work. Especially in today’s world, you probably need to keep an eye not only on your own narrow specialty, but on a number of related areas of research. The problem is particularly bad for those of us who engage in multidisciplinary research. In this blog post, I’m going to suggest some techniques you can use to keep up with relevant developments. This post is mostly intended for my student readers. The experienced scientists who read this blog will have their own strategies for keeping abreast of the latest developments, and I would invite them to share their ideas here.
Before I get into the mechanics however, let me address an important question: Why should you read scientific papers? Why not just lock yourself into your lab and devote yourself completely to your research work? Well, you could try that, but you probably wouldn’t turn out to be a very effective scientist. By reading relevant papers, you can of course avoid repeating work that has already been done. You can learn techniques that you can apply in your own research. You can learn about ideas that might impact the interpretation of your results, or even open up new directions in your own research. On a purely selfish level, having a broad awareness of the science going on around you will help you get through your comprehensive exam and oral thesis defence. So you need to read.
How, then, do you find relevant papers to read?
The references in papers
When you started your research, your supervisor probably handed you a handful of papers and told you to read those. And of course, you will read many other papers as your program unfolds. When you read a paper, you are not always expected to master every detail, but you should be on the lookout for points that are particularly relevant to your research. Often, the things that will catch your attention in a paper are not the primary results, but points that are brought up in the introduction or discussion relating the current work to some earlier research, or a method borrowed from an earlier study. You should be on the lookout for particularly relevant references, and read these. To be blunt: your supervisor expects this of you, although many won’t say so directly.
Searches and alerts
You will often need to search the literature for information on specific topics. That’s probably obvious to you. You may also discover a key author whose work is particularly close to yours, and you will likely want to see what else this person has published, which you can find out using an author search. There’s another useful type of search that you need to know about called a citation search. Suppose that you have identified a key paper, and you want to know if anyone has followed up on the ideas in this paper. A citation search tells you about any papers that cite the paper you started with, i.e. papers that include your starting paper in their list of references. A citation search is, in essence, a mechanism for following an idea forward in time.
There are a few different systems that allow you to do citation searches. I like the Web of Science, but it’s hardly the only game in town. Talk to your librarian about what tools are available on your campus.
A lot of the time, you will do a topic, author or citation search just once, and then look through the results to find a few papers that look particularly interesting. However, you may at some point have a topic that is so central to your research, or an author whose work is so relevant, or a paper that is so important to the field, that you want to know anytime a paper appears meeting one of these search criteria. In these cases, you would set up an alert in a relevant search engine. (Again, talk to your librarian about what alerting systems are available on your campus.) There are some variations on this theme, but usually an alert would be a search that is run automatically on a weekly schedule, with results (if any) emailed to you. In order to set up an alert, you usually need to set up an account with the database provider. If your institution subscribes to the database, this would normally be free.
When I was a graduate student, I used to go to the departmental library on Fridays and see what new journals had arrived. In the Chemistry library at the University of Toronto, new journals were piled on a table in the reading area. I would flip through the tables of contents of a few journals that were particularly relevant to me, and maybe browse one or two others each week as the spirit moved me. As a result, I would sometimes run into useful articles that I might not have found any other way.
I doubt that very many people browse physical journals in quite this way anymore. I certainly don’t. However, it’s useful to browse a few journals to facilitate the serendipitous discoveries of interesting work.
The best way to “browse” journals now is probably to have the journals email you their tables of contents. Almost every journal has some mechanism for this. Just go to the journal’s home page and look around for a link to their email alerting service. These services are always free. I would encourage you to get the tables of contents of a few important generalist journals (e.g. Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) as well as a few specialist journals in your area. You don’t want to have a hundred journals send you their tables of contents, so how do you decide which ones to get? Well, what have you been reading? Your supervisor’s suggestions as well as the results of your searches will likely have turned up a few key journals in which a significant amount of work in your area is published. Get those journals to send you their tables of contents. It may only be one or two journals at first, but as you read more, you will find additional journals whose tables of contents are worth adding to your list.