It has become increasingly difficult to follow the recent developments in any field, as thousands and thousands new papers are being published each month. Still, part of the researcher’s job is to keep an eye on progress is her field. Many academics, young and old alike, struggle trying to find some way to manage this flood of information. Lazy afternoons in the library spent digging through printed editions of scientific journals are long gone. We live and need to survive in a very modern world now.
Fortunately there are tools that can help us to surf this wave instead of drowning in it. The one that I personally favor is RSS.
RSS stand for Really Simple Syndication (nowadays it is also called Rich Site Summary) and it is a feed that provides a content of a website in a standardized format. Multiple RSS feeds combined together in an aggregator application (reader) or service allow to combine and search through information from multiple websites. This makes very easy to follow favorite sources of information from a single access point. Yes, it sounds a bit like Facebook, but RSSes predate social media and you keep full control on what shows up in your information feed.
The RSS feed for a research paper typically includes title, publication date, journal, full names of all authors, and an abstract. All that is necessary to quickly evaluate if the paper is of any use. If yes, the link will take you to the publisher where you will be able to download the full paper (assuming that you have access). Very fast and convenient.
There are several RSS feed readers, but my personal tool of choice is Feedly. Mainly because it can be configured to resemble ever-to-be-missed Google Reader. Every position can be saved, shared by email, saved to Pocket, Evernote, or to one of many popular services.
As the journal feeds are refreshed often, be aware that the amount of new publications can be overwhelming. Every couple of days few dozens of new papers show up. I follow just six journals and got notified about over a hundred articles every week! Of course not everything is relevant nor interesting. Depending on your area of expertise and interests, you should probably ignore majority of them. Actually, to stay sane you MUST dismiss most of them. Do not forget that this tool is here to find new things that are relevant to you, not to stay aware of everything that is being published! It is simply impossible.
As the number of unread papers will quickly become unbearable, it is easy to feel anxious. It is similar feeling to the one you experience while checking your overflowing email inbox or looking into that ‘PDFs to read’ folder on your desktop. So no, do not even try to read everything. Do not even peek into that abstracts. If you see that the title is not within your interests, simply mark it as ‘read’, forget about it, and proceed to the next position on the list.
Many RSS readers will provide you with a handy search tool. Search feature allows to quickly sweep through recent abstracts and authors to find whatever keyword interests you (unfortunately in Feedly it is available exclusively in paid Pro version . Very useful if you just want to check if something interesting showed up in last few weeks or if your favorite author published anything recently.
The process described above is specifically useful to stay up to date on what is going on in your field. This is not a good method to carry out a complex research for your literature review. Since you are only looking at the new stuff, the results will never be complete so sometimes you might miss something important.
The only thing that needs to done now is to read all those newly found papers, but this is a completely different story.