Keeping up with the literature – an unwinnable battle?

I was going to write about predatory journals* but got distracted by tidying my office 🙂

Pre- and post-annual holiday office tidy

Whilst triaging the many pieces of paper that littered my office floor, table and desks, I realised that my “papers to read pile” had,

One that failed the triage, too fly-blown even for a keen entomologist 🙂

like an aphid, not only multiplied but spread itself across several locations. Once collated and stacked neatly into a single entity I was shocked to see that I was now faced with over 30 cm of interesting and potentially useful literature, to peruse, digest, annotate and add to my filing system.

The paper mountain – an awesome spectacle or should that be awful?

I am, as regular readers will know, no longer in the first flush of youth**.  Forty-five years ago as undergraduates, my generation went to the library to read physical journals, making notes as we went along and, very, very occasionally, spending money for a photocopy.   As a PhD student this was also how we operated, although we had by then learnt the art of reading Current Contents and the appropriate CABI Abstracts and sending a reprint request card to the authors of papers whose titles and abstracts had particularly caught our attention. We also had access to inter-library loans and depending on your supervisor, access to and the budget to enable you to photocopy older papers found while browsing journals in the library.  Once read, the paper was reverentially placed in a filing cabinet, especially if it had been signed by an eminent luminary, and the more organised of

My filing cabinets – all drawers full

D-K; A few of the 33 record card storage boxes that help clutter my office

us, entered the details, including our own keywords, on a record card which were then stored in a record card storage box, or card index system as we called it 🙂

 

Record cards ready for the details to be entered to my EndNote data base and subsequent filing in the appropriate storage box.  I prefer my own keywords as they often differ from those supplied by the authors.

In those days there were far fewer journals, the learned societies that I was, and am still a member of, the Association of Applied Biologists, the Royal Entomological Society, and the British Ecological Society, published one, two, and three journals respectively.  Keeping up with the literature, although in those days without the aid of search engines and email alerts, was fairly easy.  The biggest hindrance being the lack of response from some authors to your laboriously penned postcard reprint request.  Now those three societies publish three, seven and seven journals, all available on-line and two of the British Ecological Society’s journals don’t even have print copies.  On top of that, there are a plethora of commercial publishers producing huge numbers of journals.  You think of a subject and there will be a journal, and then there are the predatory journals to add to the deluge L Things have certainly changed over the last forty years, and the library and Current Contents have been replaced by email alerts, on-line tables of contents with their snazzy graphical abstracts to tempt me to download the full version pdf with every intention of reading it later. Now, as a creature of habit and a great believer in the belts and braces approach to data storage, I keep both physical and electronic versions of all the papers that I download, hence the paper mountain in my office and my guilt complex about being behind with the literature.  I, like many of you, get irritated when I read a paper dealing with stuff I work on and find I have not been cited or as a referee notice that relevant literature has not got a mention.  Now, I’m a great believer in giving credit when it’s due (Leather, 2004, 2014), and have of course blown off steam about it previously on this blog, but even I am starting to have second thoughts about keeping au fait with the literature both past and present, or in the case of some journals, future J

I am sure that like me, when you sit down to write a paper you do a literature search.  In the old days I was pretty confident that I was right up to date and that my trusty card index system computer-based data base would give me all the references I need.   Now though, especially, given the unread paper mountain sitting on my office floor and the pile of record cards still to be input to EndNote™, I know, that I am, sadly, not likely to have all the relevant papers to hand, so like everyone else I hit Google Scholar and Web of Science.

Papers I read to write my last two papers – still to be added to my card index system

This of course generates another pile of papers, albeit ones I have read, but lacking a record card and no presence on my data base L  The latter problem I could solve by using the EndNote™ download function but that goes against my neurotic need to have my own keywords and writing record cards for every paper I read while researching material for the paper in progress would slow the writing process hugely which is already under pressure from my other duties, teaching, student supervision, administration and all the other demands that impinge on the typical academic’s life.

In conclusion, I think and it makes me sad to write this, but the days of putting aside what look like interesting papers to read later, is no longer viable and I have now reached the stage where I can only cope with accessing and reading the literature needed for a work in progress. The battle has been lost L

References

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, 7, 30-40.

 

*

I am sure I will eventually get round to writing it 🙂

**

Externally at any rate, internally I am still a youthful 17-year old 🙂

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5 Comments

Filed under Science writing

5 responses to “Keeping up with the literature – an unwinnable battle?

  1. Right on, Simon! And having been out of academia for 2 1/2 years, I have no hope at all. I do not envy the next generation of scientists facing a Mount Everest of information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I’ve pretty much given up trying to keep up with the literature, and I never print out papers now. I expect the current and future younger generations of scientists will adapt their working styles (and psychology?) to cope with this info-tsunami. It’s going to be challenging though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I’m no longer in academia, I still try to keep up with the literature on via preprint servers, but the papers still need to be read!

    I’d love to get your feedback on a web app I’m developing to help address this problem. You drop in your PDFs and Word documents and it generates summary cards that you can read on your phone or tablet, automatically highlighting the key points of each paper. Also integrates with Endnote. Cheers, Phil

    Like

  4. I did start out at the beginning of my PhD printing & filing all relevant papers, but gave up on that pretty quickly!

    Liked by 1 person

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