How to keep up-to-date with the literature, but avoid information overload?

[Reprinted on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, 18 May 2018]

In the “good old days” when I completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees information overload wasn’t really much of a problem. At a time where assignments were handwritten or typed on a typewriter, keeping up-to-date with the literature consisted of browsing through the recent issues of journals, found on the shelves of the library’s reading room. Tracking down the references in these articles involved making numerous trips to the musty cellars of university libraries – sometimes even in other cities – and dragging large stacks of bound volumes to the photocopier.

I still vividly remember the chemical smell of the thermal paper that was used in most photocopiers. I also spent looooots of time waiting when someone else was using the photocopier or cursing in desperation when a previous users had left it broken without alerting technicians. Those were the days of slow Science…

Finding out whether a specific article had been cited by others involved going through the paper version of the (Social) Science Citation Index. Even though this publication had paper so thin you could almost see through it, was incredibly heavy. So yes, you would risk a hernia from carrying around heavy stacks of books and I would invariably get queasy from the chemical smell of the photocopiers compounded by the lack of fresh air in the library cellars. But information overload was never much of an issue.

Things had “improved” slightly when I did my PhD. I now had my own personal computer and email started to become more common as a means of communication, thus speeding up access to information. That said; much of my communication with other academics still took place through letters or – if you wanted “instant” communication – faxes. Remember how the thermal paper meant these faxes became illegible after a while? In spite of the use of personal computers, keeping up-to-date with the literature still required visits to the libary. To all intents and purposes the Internet didn’t really exist. In any case, dial-up modems and connections were so slow that getting the information from a book on the library shelves would usually be much quicker.

Drowning in information?

Fast forward 20-odd years and we are seriously at risk of drowning in information. This is certainly true for many people’s daily lives. Who would ever have thought that FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) would be the cause of serious mental health issues? Personally, I don’t “do” Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or whatever form of Social Media is the flavour of the month. I have no particular desire to broadcast my private life and at the same time help commercial companies collect and sell data about my consumption preferences [and this post was written well before the March 2018 revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica]. Nor for that matter am I very interested in the personal lives of others, beyond the small group of family and friends that I can easily keep in touch with without social media.

computer

However, the risk of drowning is equally present in our professional lives. You could literally spend all day trying to keep up-to-date with what is happening in your field. If you have online profiles on services such as ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Mendeley, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slideshare and the like and you have enabled email notifications, you could find your email inbox literally overflowing every day. One librarian I know joked that ResearchGate would send you an email whenever one of the academics in your network f*rted. I am hardly following anyone on ResearchGate and have disabled 95% of their alerts, including the follower alerts that tell you when someone reads or cites your paper, as well as the gratuitous “you/your paper are/is the best” type of alerts. But even so, I still get several emails a week as they do not have a “digest” function.

How to keep your head above the water?

Social media alerts will typically provide you with low quality information that detracts your attention from any research you are working on and is tempting you to login again to check up on all the activity. This is fine if your intention is distraction and amusement, but not if it is to keep up-to-date with serious research. Scientific communication, especially in the Social Sciences, really is not so rapid that you need to get daily updates. However, it would be foolish not to use some of these services to relieve the burden of keeping up-to-date in today’s hectic academic world. My recommendations for keeping up to date with important new publications in your field would be as follows:

Set up citation alerts for your own articles

An article that cites one of your own articles has a high likelihood of being relevant to your research interests. Personally, I have found Google Scholar the best way to find out about articles citing my work. Despite its limitations, Google Scholar is still the most comprehensive source of citation data. The easiest way to get citation alerts for your work is to set up a Google Scholar Citation Profile, which  is easy and very quick to do. Once you have done this you can create citation alerts for your entire body of work with just one click. This means Google Scholar will send you an email whenever one of your articles is cited, including a brief abstract of the article allowing you to decide whether it is worth following up on. Most of the time you can even download a copy of the article there and then.

Set up new article alerts for academics in your field

If there are specific authors in your field that are crucial to your work, consider following them on Google Scholar. You can do this by searching for their Google Scholar Citation Profile and clicking on the follow button. In this case, I would suggest you only follow their “new articles” and not their “new citations” as the latter might well flood your mailbox, particularly if you follow several highly-cited authors. Please note that you can achieve similar results by following academics on ResearchGate and Academia.edu, but personally I find that information density is much higher for Google Scholar alerts.

Set up new article alerts for key topics in your field

If there is a particular topic you would like to stay up to date with, simply conduct a search in Google Scholar and click on the “Create alert” link in the left-hand column. This will send you alerts whenever there is a new result for these particular search terms. I would encourage you to make these searches as specific as possible to avoid being overwhelmed with a flood of barely relevant alerts.

Check Google Scholar’s “my updates” once a month

Once you have set up a Google Scholar Citation Profile, Google Scholar will provide you with “my updates”, their assessment of publications that might be of interest to you. These are based on your own publication history, as well any articles you have saved in GS’s “my library”. The more relevant articles you have in these two sources, the more relevant the alerts will be to you. Reviewing the alerts would normally take only 10-15 minutes a month and in general I have found them to be pretty good. I am usually quite interested in one third of the suggestions and most of the remaining updates are of the "nice-to-know" type. I have received very few irrelevant updates.

Subscribe to Table of Contents alerts

In the “good old days”, librarians would circulate folders with TOCs from relevant journals to academics. I still remember the pale yellow manila folders with stacks of photocopied TOCs. They were often delayed for months because a colleague lost them on their desk or went on a long holiday without passing the folder on to the next person on the list. Now you can use the same “old fashioned” way to keep up to date by getting these TOC alerts by email. I have done this by creating alerts in the Current Contents Connect of the Web of Science, which does work well. If you do not have access to the Web of Science, you could consider using the free service JournalTOCs. It seems to be quite useful, but judging from the limited number of people following particular journals it is rarely used. Unfortunately, at the moment their website doesn’t follow normal security protocols and doesn’t even allow secure passwords, so at present I cannot really recommend it, but it is worth keeping an eye on.

Periodically review core journals in your field

Alerts sometimes come at inconvenient or busy times and you might simply delete them without reading. Moreover, it is quite easy to miss some information even if you do look at the alerts. So several times a year, I take a few hours to manually review the new issues of a list of core journals that I am interested in. I do this simply by logging in to my university library, searching for journal titles their A-Z journal list and reviewing the latest issues. This means that if an article is of interest, I can immediately download it for later reading.

In sum

Following these six steps I find I rarely miss an article that is important to me. As indicated above, you can do much more than this by using social media for academics. But if your main goal is simply to keep up-to-date with academic publications, I find the added value of these services to be fairly low. Finally, if rather than staying up-to-date you want to get a quick overview of all research in a particular area in say the last 10 or 20 years, I can recommend using Publish or Perish to do a literature review.

Related readings