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Ten tips to stay on top of your reading during grad school

In grad school we tend to focus on experiments: planning, performing, analyzing and interpreting them. While keeping up with relevant literature is equally important, this part of a PhD often fades into the background. I learned this the hard way – during my PhD I allocated too little time to reading, missed a paper and wasted time on a dead end. In order to avoid this happening again, I’ve optimized my tools to stay on top of the flood of papers – 2.5 million papers are published in 28,100 journals each year. Here’s how you can do the same!

  1. Set up email alerts. Scanning journals and databases such as PubMed for new publications each day or week is a time consuming task. But there are several websites that scan new publications daily and send you email alerts if publications matching your search terms are found. You can set up those alerts directly on PubMed, or use other services such as PubCrawler (my personal favorite), Google Scholar or Web of Science.
  1. Spend time finding the perfect search terms. When you start setting up alerts, it is important to play around with your search terms. There is a fine line between too few hits when your search criteria are too strict, and getting back hundreds of publications per alert because you are too vague. I personally found it most helpful to set up several specific search terms (each getting 5-10 hits per week) instead of one vague one. Boolean operators are also your friend – learn how to use them! The right use of AND and OR can make all the difference. Another useful feature on PubMed and other sites is using truncations in your search terms. For example, I work on macrophage differentiation. By entering differentiat* instead of differentiation my search results will include not just differentiation, but also differentiated, differentiate and differentiating.
  1. Don’t limit yourself to keyword searches. Set up alerts for new publications from the key players – and your competitors (!) – in the field. This way you will never miss a publication from them ever again. You should also set up citation alerts to all of your own publications. Why? People who cite your work will likely publish on topics relevant to you. If you haven’t published yet, you can set up alerts on your PI’s papers. Lastly, setting up citation alerts on key papers in your field will allow you to keep track of new results as well as how findings are received in the field. Are people citing the new theory already or are they avoiding or disproving it?
  1. Keep your search terms updated. Every few months you should check your search terms. Are they still relevant to you or has your focus changed? Should you add a citation alert for a new and important paper? Can you delete or improve a keyword search you set up a year ago? Maintaining your search criteria is as important as setting them up in the first place.
  1. Set up eTOCs and RSS feeds with the journals you frequent most. In addition to specific keyword search email alerts, I also set up alerts with several journals in my field. This strategy allows you to keep a broader overview. Instead of remembering to check the latest issues each week or month, a table of content summary (eTOC) is sent to you automatically. Most journals will also have RSS feeds you can subscribe to – allowing you to also see publications that are in press but not yet listed on PubMed. To subscribe to those, you do need a RSS feed reader – Feedly being the most commonly used one.
  1. Check out new learning software in addition to classical alerts. I recently came across a new generation of reference managers such as ReadCube, CiteULike and PubChase (although more commonly used Mendeley has a similar feature). These programs not only allow you to save and organize your literature, but they also make recommendations for new papers based on your history. Have a look at the options and see which fits you best. My personal favorite is PubChase; its recommendations have been great for me so far and it is completely free to use. PubChase operates on the basis that users can benefit from each other. Assuming that people reading the same papers share interests, the software compares the libraries of its users and makes suggestions based on what other people with similar libraries read.
  1. Use social media. The discussion surrounding scientists using social media is ongoing, but there are many ways you can use social media – particularly Twitter – to your advantage. Follow journals to see what new stories they have coming out. More and more scientists and labs have their own accounts tweeting about their latest research. Automated twitter accounts – called Twitter bots – also scan the literature for certain topics and help you find interesting new papers. @paperfly digests Drosophila papers, while @plantecologyblot tweets about ecological content from plant biology journals and @EcoEvoJournals covers Ecology and Evolution. In addition to being a source for the latest publications, Twitter also allows you to discuss new findings with other scientists and see how the research community reacts to new ideas.
  1. Check out conferences for new reading material. Conferences are a great place to catch the latest developments in a field, as many researchers will either present their new papers or work in progress. In addition to hearing the work and interpretation by the authors themselves, you can also get a feel of how people receive the work. For conferences you cannot attend – check the online abstract book for interesting new stories or players in your field and use social media! Most conferences have hashtags these days allowing you to follow from afar. Follow conference organizers such as Keystone Symposia and Gordon Conferences for conference announcements.
  1. Add a personal touch – use journal clubs and lab mates to share latest research. If you find a paper that your colleague might be interested in, send it to them! They will often return the favor. Are you bored with your traditional journal club? Why not mix things up and use journal club for a literature overview? Simply divide relevant journals up between all participants, and give each person two to three minutes to highlight one or two interesting papers per week. If, like me, you are the only person in your lab working on a given topic, branch out and start a new journal club with people outside your lab. That way you can not only share new papers but also new techniques you are working on – the input will be invaluable.
  1. Set aside fixed time slots to go over new papers. This is probably the most important point. You can have great tools: email alert, social media or learning software – but if you do not invest the time to look over the alerts and recommendations, they will be of no use. Having a defined time slot for literature search is the most efficient way to scan the literature. I have two hours each week allocated in my calendar for literature searches, every Friday. After that, I normally have one to three papers on my reading list. Happy reading!


Featured image: Photo by author






Web of Science






Tutorial on setting up alerts on PubMed

Truncation on PubMed

Boolean operators

Mark Ware, Michael Mabe (2015) The STM Report – An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing

Mary Gearing (2016) Social media for ECRs: Serious scientists can (and do!) use Twitter , PLOS ECR Community blog

Elizabeth Gibney (2014) How to tame the flood of literature , Nature Toolbox




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