Keeping up with the literature

IMG_0800Perhaps there was a time when you might have known everyone working on questions related to yours. A handful of meetings might have let you know all there was to be known in your field. If you missed a meeting, a journal or two would keep you up to date.

Those times are over. You cannot hope to keep up. Even though you might get away with knowing just one language, if that language is English, there is not time enough in the day to keep up with any but the smallest corner of the academic world. What to do?

You might decide to stick with that small corner of people you know who work on the same problems approached in the same way as you. That way you can all cite each other in mutually fulfilling ways. But we know that creativity comes from reaching out to new fields, from reading broadly as well as deeply. How can you possibly keep up?

If nothing else, teaching keeps you alive because you have to do a certain amount of reading for class. Journal clubs can keep you reading a paper or two a week. If you agree to referee for journals (you should), that also helps keep you up to date in areas close to your own. If you have scientists as friends on Facebook, they will let you know about the more exciting studies. At very broad levels, Futurity lets you see what is exciting out there. You can also get the tables of contents of your favorite journals emailed to you, so you can read the titles and occasionally the abstracts.

IMG_0508I think the most important stuff to read is material that may change your career.  There is no simple way to find this except an openness to novelty. In a way it is the opposite of keeping up. You could jettison the idea of keeping up and instead read broadly, only going back to the field you know best when it is time to write.

When you write, you should know what others have done, but you don’t have to have kept up to be good at this. These days you can look forward and backwards with search engines, like the free Google Scholar. You can penetrate even novel webs of citations. By focusing on keeping up only when you need to write, you can cite well and carefully while still saving time for general reading. That way you won’t miss things like the originator of proximate and ultimate approaches to biology. It is Ernst Mayr, by the way, not Niko Tinbergen. I’ll leave the looking up to you!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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4 Responses to Keeping up with the literature

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    I like your suggestion to read broadly, and to catch up with the literature in your own area whenever you need to write a paper or a grant. That’s basically how I read. And that’s how I’ve come up with many of my best ideas. I have several papers on the Price equation for instance, all of which ultimately grew out of reading Steven Frank’s 1997 Evolution paper on the Price equation when I was in grad school. It had nothing to do with what I was working on. But at the time I made a habit (which I’ve tried to keep up) of just perusing the latest issues of all the leading ecology and evolution journals and reading everything that sounded interesting.

    Brad Anholt once told me that he reads just the Introductions of every paper published in every leading ecology and evolution journal. That’s how he stays broad and keeps up with what’s going on in ecology and evolution.

    There’s also the issue of how quickly you read. I vary my pace depending on the purpose for which I’m reading. Anything from skimming the Abstract and figures to reading the paper as if I were reviewing it.

    I have an old post on some of these issues:

    • That is interesting that you can vary the pace you read. I read quickly and unfortunately miss things. My husband reads more slowly and carefully. I would have to read things twice to get where he gets from reading once. I wonder how many people have developed the talent of varying their reading speed? I think I read fast from consuming so many novels now and as a kid.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: Sears CEO vs. multi-level selection, noninformative priors = perpetual motion machines, scientific wills, a poetic paper, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: What we’re reading: Protease-enforced mutualistic exclusivity, predicting complex traits from SNPs, and keeping up with your scientific reading | The Molecular Ecologist

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