Too much information?

Nature recently published the first issue of yet another journal bearing the Nature name, Nature Ecology & Evolution. This brings to 28 the number of journals bearing the Nature brand, not counting the 18 Nature Reviews journals nor the 25 Nature Research Journals. I am going to add Nature Ecology & Evolution to the list of journals I peruse periodically, right next to Nature Geoscience, another relatively young journal (launched in 2008). But this got me thinking about how increasingly challenging it is to keep up with the scientific literature, particularly if you are just entering the field. To that end, here is some advice for staying on top of the burgeoning scientific literature related to vertebrate paleontology.

First, make a list of all (or most) of the journals that might publish articles of interest to you and that you think you should check on a regular basis. No matter what your speciality, “big name” journals like Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences should be on your list, as these publish some of the most important scientific research regardless of the field. If you are a vertebrate paleontologist, then the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and a variety of other paleontology journals should be on your list as well. Depending on your research interests, you might also includes journals related to systematics, evolution, ecology, biogeography, and/or geology. Museum publications are important to check for systematic and specimen-based research, and open access journals such as PLoS ONE publish a variety of paleontology-related research. If you aren’t sure where to begin, look through the papers your advisor gave you when you started or that you have saved to your computer and see where they were published.

Most journals allow you to sign up to receive new article and/or issue alerts by email, and this is a great way to make sure you don’t miss any important papers - assuming you can keep up with your email, of course! I personally don’t feel the need to know the instant a new article is published, so I just opt for new issue alerts. Moreover, I have created email filters in gmail so that they bypass my inbox and go directly to a special “Journals” folder that I check periodically. I find it is better to have regular “journal time” than risk getting distracted by an interesting new article when I am supposed to be putting together slides for my next lecture.

To make sure I actually go through my Journals folder, I set a todo reminder on my time-management software. When I check that item off my todo list, it reminds me in another 2.5 weeks. This interval seems to be a good compromise between checking too frequently and allowing too many issue alerts to accumulate. Some publishers also allow you to sign up for alerts for particular book series. For example, you can sign up for Springer’s Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology series here. This can be a really useful way to hear about new thematic volumes or reviews.

Things are a bit more complicated for journals that don’t offer issue alerts or that publish individual articles rather than issues (American Museum Novitates is a great example). I keep a separate list of those journals and have a separate reminder to check all of them every two months or so (since there are fewer of those and they often publish less frequently). I also have a spreadsheet to keep track of the last article/date I checked so I know where to start each time.

Another handy way to keep up with relevant articles is to sign up for citation alerts: notifications  that are sent to you whenever a particular article (yours or someone else’s) is cited. This is a great way to discover relevant articles that are published in journals that you don’t normally read. It can also alert you to new digital books that have been published, which can be difficult to track. You can sign up for citation alerts via Web of Science (which requires institutional access), Google Scholar (free), publishers such as Elsevier (also free), and a variety of other services. My email filter is set to shunt these citation alerts to my Journals folder so that I can review these during my normal journal time.

As you start to amass more and more articles, it is vital to have some way to manage your library. This will not only help you find articles on particular topics but also save you lots of time  when you have to format a bibliography. Every journal has their own particular way of formatting references (and in-text citations), and having reference management software to help you do that is a big time-saver. There are many options and considerations for software. The most important thing is that you find something that works for you and stick with it. Wikipedia has what looks to be a pretty comprehensive comparative table here. You can also check with your colleagues to see what they use.

I use EndNote to organize my references and format bibliographies simply because that’s what I started with and it seems to work for me. Whenever I download a new paper, I also download its citation and upload it into EndNote. This is easily done with almost any journal, and you can download citations in a format that works with your software. Once the new citation is in EndNote, I quickly scan it to see if there are any mistakes that need to be corrected - such as missing accents and other diacritical marks and scientific names that aren’t italicized. That saves me having to correct those issues when I’m writing a paper. If someone sends me a paper via email, I do a Google search for the title to find the original journal page and download the citation there. If need be, I enter the citation by hand, which is what I generally have to do for book chapters. That way, all of my references are in EndNote

When it comes to writing a paper, EndNote is a big help. It comes with a variety of export filters for properly formatting references for major journals, and you can create new ones (or track them down on the internet) for journals that aren’t included. The other major benefit of using a program like EndNote - if you use the Cite While You Write feature - is that it ensures an exact 1:1 correspondence between the references you cite in the body of a manuscript and those that are included in the bibliography. That makes editors and reviewers happy.

How do I organize my PDFs? I have one folder on Dropbox for all of them. This allows me to access them from anywhere and makes it easy for me to search all my references for a particular locality or taxon. The PDFs are labeled by author and year in a consistent way so I can easily find any reference I need. Sometimes I add one or more additional modifiers (e.g.,  Simpson 1941 Sloth to distinguish it from Simpson 1941 Saber-teeth). Such modifiers can also be useful for helping you relocate a paper you read recently if you can remember the topic but not the author.

If you have made a New Year’s resolution to organize your library or do a better job of staying on top of the scientific literature, I hope some of these strategies will help!

- Dr. Darin Croft is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
Posted: 1/12/2017 9:09:51 PM by croftdarinadmin | with 0 comments
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