One of the great appeals of life as a researcher — especially in academia — is the freedom to time manage yourself and set your own goals. This state of being your own boss in a team of own-bosses give you the creative freedom to work on what interests you with the support of a group of peers who can help you out when you need advice or a sanity check.
However one of the downsides of the freedom that is intrinsic to academic research is the requirement to manage your own productivity, and there are abundant obstacles to productive academic research. Whilst this blog definitely doesn’t claim to have all the answers to this age-old problem here, we hope that this piece can give you some advice on how to deal with some of the more common problems.
What’s your end goal?
Good productivity requires having some form of end-goal in sight when you start your tasks. This allows you to prioritise what activities you do in what order; which information you seek out and when; and gives you a target to evaluate your progress against. We’ll see how this can be helpful with a perennial academic chore: staying on top of all the work getting published out there.
Keeping on top of the literature
Staying up to date with the current literature is a subtly different task to doing an exploratory reading of the published literature on a topic. Whilst looking for a specific bit of information has a clear end goal, “staying on top of the literature” is an altogether fuzzier objective.
“Broadly speaking, what you’re looking to do is make sure that nothing you should know gets published without you finding out about it.“
So, at the next conference when an acquaintance says “Oh, but did you read the paper from the group in Munich that got published in March” you can confidently answer “Yes!” as opposed to desperately scanning your memory for every paper you read in the last 6 months by someone with a vaguely German sounding name.
Back in the late 1600s, keeping on top of the academic literature was easy. There were only three journals and the only thing you needed to be able to keep up with every scientific discovery was the ability to read Latin.
“In 2018 the number of papers published every year averages at about 7,000 per day.”
So staying on top of the literature which is relevant to you requires substantially more filtering.
To keep your literature surveying productive, the best tools you can use are the ones that do your searching for you while you get on with your work. These include tools like RSS readers, citation trackers and in our humble opinion, the RESEARCHER App. Even with these tools, you still need to understand what you are looking for, and how to approach the monumental task of keeping on top of the literature.
1. Identify the journals you want to follow.
The first step is to identify at an early stage which publications and journals will always be worth skimming. Usually, I found that these were the highly specialised journals that deal with my specific sub-field. For example, my PhD was on materials chemistry for electronic materials, so J Mat Chem C and Advanced Electronic Materials journals were worth having a search of all the abstracts for. I added these journals to my RSS reader (after Google Feeds was discontinued, I became a Feedly user) and set aside time to check it periodically for recently disseminated papers. Likewise using RESEARCHER, it’s even easier, all you have to do is follow the journal and it will be added into your feed on the app. When you want to have a look through the current papers it’s as simple as just opening up your feed and having a scroll.
2. Identify the key papers in your field.
The second thing to do is identify is the key papers that will always be cited by anyone doing work that is relevant to your field, even if they don’t publish in journals you might usually follow.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. The easiest way I found to do this was on Google Scholar. Search for the paper and select “Citations”, then on the left-hand side click “create new alert”. From then on, Google will send you an email whenever a new paper appears on Google Scholar which cites the paper you’re interested in. Depending on how many papers you have alerts for, and how popular they are, this might start producing huge quantities of emails to your inbox so I would recommend setting up automatic rules on your inbox that sort them into a folder and keep them separate from the rest of your work emails. This will also work if you want to track the outputs of specific authors (provided their names aren’t too common).
3. Schedule time for reading the latest literature.
By now you should have a built up a few lists of appropriate reading material than you can get started on. The next thing to do is actually sit down and read through them (link to the guide on how to read papers). It’s important to dedicate a period of time to this regularly enough to stop the pile of papers growing up so large you can’t give them the time and attention they really need. Membership of a journal club is usually a great motivator for making sure you sit down and read your pile: if you’ve got to share one paper a month from the recent literature, then you’re at least going to read your list the day before your journal club.
4. Share and stay organised.
It’s important to make sure that you keep your lists and feeds up to date by tracking the most relevant journals and paper citations. It’s also a really great idea to share relevant papers you find with your colleagues who they might also be useful for, so people will share what the find back with you. By building up self-populating lists of relevant papers and collaborating closely with others in your area, it’s easy to keep yourself up to speed with a lot of the important work that’s being published every week. But you must remain organised, we can’t stress this enough. You may be sent papers through multiple channels, messages and through different groups. This can become difficult to track, let alone organise. So if you want to share and receive papers, be regimented in your organisation.
Author: Dr Matt Allinson