Keeping up with the journals

[This post is an abridged version of the editorial in the September 2011 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

With more and more scientific articles and journals being published, how can you effectively keep abreast of new research relevant to your own projects?

The ever-increasing number of chemistry-related journals and articles has been discussed and debated for years. Usually the focus falls on three issues: the increase in the overall number of articles, the increase in the number of (usually more specialized) journals, and the fragmentation of results by researchers to maximize their number of publications. The first issue is easy to explain: there are simply more scientists now and they all depend critically upon the publication of their work. Few scientists would argue against more science and this issue seems here to stay.

The increase in the number of specialized journals is a more contentious matter. In 1973, a group of eleven concerned chemists lamented the “recent proliferation of journals”. They argued that “the literature should be so constructed as to deter trends towards overspecialization, and should foster communication among chemists working in different areas”.

The sentiment about improving interdisciplinary communication is admirable, but the general growth in the number of publications makes it unrealistic to expect researchers to keep up with current studies by reading only a few select journals. Compartmentalization was an inevitability that has some sound logic behind it — researchers can read specialist journals knowing that they will find papers of interest and can publish in them assured that their peers will be more likely to see their work.

With the literature now so vast, keeping abreast of what is going on in a given scientific field has become a real challenge, but remains an important aspect of practising cutting-edge science. Not knowing about a published paper relevant to your research can have detrimental consequences when trying to get published or funded.

To keep track of the literature, the Nature Chemistry editors all use RSS feeds with a feed reader that allows papers to be shared among the team. You subscribe to the feeds of journals and when they publish an article the feed is updated. This might sound just like an e-mail alert or like browsing the journal website, but RSS feeds are far more straightforward to organize, track and search.

There are other online tools that can be used in a similar way. Twitter, as a rapid online information exchange, is a great way of keeping up to date with news of more general scientific interest, but unless your research community is actively using it to swap interesting papers, it is much less useful for keeping track of more specialized areas. Online reference-management programmes such as Connotea and Mendeley also have the facility to share articles. The website ‘Faculty of 1000’ provides the biomedical community with a place to find papers that other researchers find interesting and an equivalent in the chemistry community would be most useful. It relies on academics identifying and evaluating articles from the literature and can, quite quickly, give an idea of which papers are piquing the interest of their peers.

With a little organization and some useful online tools, the apparently daunting task of keeping up to date can be achieved: like eating an elephant, it has to be done one bite at a time.

You can read full the editorial here (registration is free).


Gavin Armstrong (Senior Editor, Nature Chemistry)