How do I keep up with the Literature?

Here’s a cry from the heart (Stephen Koch Department of Chemistry SUNY Stony Brook) on the CHMINF-L list (for chemical informatics and libraries).

I would like to bring up an issue which has not generated a lot of
discussion on this list. How does a research chemist keep up with the current literature in his or her field? I will outline what I do, and am curious to hear other approaches.
In order to keep up with the literature in my field of research, which happens to be Inorganic Chemistry, I have always scanned the table of contents of a number of journals. JACS, Inorg. Chem., Comm., Dalton Trans. Angew Chem. etc. In the distant past, I would go through the paper copies of the new journals every week. In more recent times, I have had the table of contents of the journals emailed to me, and then I go online to view the graphic table of contents of the various issues. I delete the email when I have gone through that issue. The problem is that the number of journal articles has become overwhelming, so many of the journals are now coming every week and there are so many more journals which publish high quality research. What tends to happen is that the unread table of contents emails
build up. For me, it is only possible to begin to cope with the situation because I can rapidly scan through graphics table of contents.
I don’t have a large research group so I can’t go a division of labor and use my graduate students. I also have always feared that they will not be a complete job.
When I realize that months have gone by since I looked through some of the journals, I fall back to the fact that I have set up to the Web of Science alerts to keywords and author searches in the areas that are directly related to my current research projects. The fear is that you are going miss a critical article. It is bad enough to be scooped; it is not good to discover the article six months after it has appeared in press. The email alerts are also critical to find relevant articles that appear in journals that I don’t look at. I also use WOS citation alerts to my own papers with the idea that I will be interested in any paper which references one of my own papers.
I have started to use the new version of Google Reader where I have RSS “subscriptions” to the journals. The articles are added as they go online so if I use it every day or so, I have been able to keep up. You place a star on an article that you want to keep for further reference.
The RSS feeds from the ACS and Chemical Society journals are excellent, with very large graphics. The Wiley journals (Angew Chem etc) RSS feeds are poor with no graphics. Maybe it not surprising since the graphics in their table of contents are also very poor; you need a magnifying glass to view them.
It would be nice if you could automatically import your starred articles into Endnote and perhaps to automatically download the pdf files.
There remains the problem of how to deal with reading the articles and archiving them so that you can retrieve them at later date. I will save what I do for another day.

I am sure we can all sympathise with all of this! If we believe in constant brain size I can see the following solutions:

  • limit your research to a tiny field. This, unfortunately, is happening more and more. In contrast science, and the world, becomes large and more diverse.
  • Use your colleagues’ brains as a collective organism. I do this a lot. It works as long as there is a reward for collaboration. If, however (as is frequent in chemistry) the ethos is competitive within the laboratory or at least department it doesn’t.
  • Use your discpline’s brains as a collective organism. This is how Open Source (such as the Blue Obelisk) and Open Science work. Again it fails in much of chemistry where the ethos is bitterly competitive rather than collaborative (I would be interested to know of any organic syntheses where the work was planned and shared between institutions). By contrast the biologists have long realised that collaborative working is essential though it is certainly not trivial). The great thing about folksonomies and collective organisms such as the Blue Obelisk is that they are self-selecting. But there is no way of controlling their evolution. See also Useful Chemistry.
  • Use machines to read the literature for you. Our software in Cambridge can now read and use large amounts of the primary chemical literature. This is a good way of alerts and aggregation for well-defined concepts (e.g. are there any papers which mention the sort of molecule I am interested in?) The main difficult is that publishers (see the reference to Wiley) are still prodcuing Hamburgers, not Cows so the machines struggle. So my prediction is that publishers who include semantics in their publications (Cows) will gain market share over Hamburgers. But of course while the mighty impact factor is the only thing that matters that will be slow.
  • Go into a field where you create the literature. Very difficult, of course, and often lonely.

I’ve had a similar post from my immediate colleagues – “how to I find out how to do X?”, “which method for Y should I use?” I’ll post on that soon.

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