Fork vs. Spoon: How do you consume your science literature?

Today’s journal club discussion was about how to stay on top of the literature for your field. To me there are three parts to this question:

  1. How do you find out about new papers then what do you do store these until you have time to read them?
  2. How do you read papers: digital vs hard copy? Where do you store and how do you organize the notes you take while reading said papers?
  3. How much time do you spend reading papers each week?

Here are our thoughts on each question but we’d love to know what you do?

1. Finding new papers and keeping a “to read” list

There is a clear dichotomy amongst HMjc members: those who rely on search terms and those who don’t. The first group was the biggest so lets talk about this strategy first. Search termers get notifications, usually through email, when papers with their particular pubmed search terms are published. Some members of this group also get alerts from the individual journals themselves when each issue is published in the form of a table of contents (or TOC) email. The pro of this method is not missing the main papers of interest in a field. The cons of this method are missing papers that don’t match the search terms directly and that it’s time consuming to go through all of the alerts each week. The search termers have the emails but they pretty much just read them as they come in.

The non-search termers rely more on other members of the community to alert them to papers of interest by  following them on google+ and twitter. They also make use of the more mysteriou3466154462_8d3b399cf4_os algorithms in pubchase and google scholar that learn what you like based on what you read, what’s in your library and your publications. The cons to this method include needing to keep a “to read” list as well as the obvious problem of missing key papers and having to do more individual searches. As a member of the non-search termers I can say that although I dread sifting through the soul-crushing deluge of alert emails, I find all of the search termers to be very knowledgeable about current research and often they are the ones I’m following on google+.

I think that the answer here is spork.

2. Digital vs. Paper

For me it’s important to be able to find my notes later… so paper is a problem and I mostly use mendeley and evernote but once a week or so I scribble all over a paper copy. One person has a system of writing “see paper copy” in mendeley when they’ve made hardcopy notes, which I think is brilliant. But pretty much it’s a matter of what method keeps each person most focused.

A couple of people are trying out new gadgets and apps for keeping notes. Livescribe combines a pen a paper combo that lets you take digital notes, includes voice recording and seems very slick. The noteshelf tablet app combined with a good quality stylus lets you scribble on a pdf of the paper you’re reading. I’m eager to see how these work for organizing and searching notes, I’ll keep you posted.

3. How much do you read each week?

The answer is some weeks LOTS and some weeks less. The bottom line is that reading the literature is time consuming so you have to dedicate time to it. Some people like to hide at the coffee shop or the library and others hunker down at their desks but either way you just have to sink your teeth in, as often as you need to, until you feel like you have a handle on your field of study.

Considering how much time is needed for reading abstracts and papers I feel like I need more time-saving strategies for finding and organizing the literature and my notes and would love your input on point 1, or the other two if you insist.


About Jennifer Stearns

Farncombe Family Chair in Microbial Ecology and Bioinformatics and Assistant Professor at McMaster University
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3 Responses to Fork vs. Spoon: How do you consume your science literature?

  1. eliesbik says:

    Great article; always nice to see how other people keep up with the literature. Shameless self plug alert: Another way to stay on top of the microbiome literature is to read my daily blog, where I try to share the results of the many eTOC and Google alerts I have set up, as well as the links I scoop up from Twitter and other blogs. It’s a completely free site without any registration, adds, or other gimmicks, but you can sign up to receive updates, just as with this blog. Or, you can follow me on Twitter, where I will post about new microbiome papers, @microbiomdigest. I hope you allow me to post this here, because the more followers I have, the more likely I will be allowed to keep on doing this during work hours. Thanks!

  2. Patrick Schenck says:

    In my other lab meeting this morning, we discussed assigning table of contents (TOCs) from different journals of interest to people in the lab, on a rotating business. This will help find papers on the periphery of our research, while dividing it helps out with the mass of papers being published. We decided to present these findings once per month in lab meeting. We shall see how it goes!

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