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Tips and tricks: How do you deal with academic literature??

Reading new and old journal articles, staying on top of new research in your field, managing your personal library and citations, and managing citations in your writing can be a daunting and overwhelming task! We asked some grad student veterans in different fields how they stay on top of things and avoid drowning in literature

Patty Standring

Grad Student, Geoscience, University of Texas at Austin, Air Force veteran

1. How do you stay up to date on the latest literature in your field?

I receive Google Scholar alerts on keywords related to my research field. I study paleoceanography using stable isotope geochemistry from marine organisms called foraminifera, so I have general alerts for “paleoceanography” and “foraminifera” to stay up to date on general advancements in those fields, and a more specific keyword alert for the geologic time period I am studying to keep track of other research disciplines on that time period that may contribute to our understanding of how the earth changed. I also have alerts for papers related to my advisor’s research by following his profile, so I recommend doing that if you are interested in working with an advisor and want to learn more about the work they are involved in. I also follow a lot of scientists, journals, and scientific societies on Twitter, and people frequently tweet about new publications and/or pre-prints of their work. Social media can be really useful as a way to stay up to date on your discipline. Note: While preprints can be really useful in getting research out to the field quickly, it’s important to remember that it has not yet been peer-reviewed. Although you can cite pre-prints, it is best to check later on if the paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and updated, so you are not citing potentially outdated/inaccurate information.

2. When you come across an interesting paper, how do you approach it?  Do you start at the beginning and read through to the end? I imagine not!

It honestly depends on the paper and what I need it for. When I download a paper, I make sure to save it with a standard file name (e.g., AuthorLastName_Year_PaperTitle) so that I can find the paper easily. I always read at least the abstract when I download to make sure it’s worth my time and determine any important topics that I might want to tag it with. I will then look at figures, and depending on how much time I have, I will save the paper for later or look at other parts of it. It is rare that I will only look at portions of a paper if I decide to read through it, but some parts of papers can be more important than others depending on the information they provide. If the paper is useful for background literature on what I am studying, I read the entire paper, but pay attention to the introduction and the papers cited to develop more references for background information. Sometimes I find a paper that outlines methodologies that could be applicable to my project, in which case it gets tagged for methods and I focus my attention on that portion of the paper and any supplemental data/analyses that comes with it. If there is an aspect of my project that has controversial or conflicting interpretations, it can be really useful to focus on the results/discussion/conclusion portion of the paper. This can help provide you with different perspectives as you collect, analyze, and interpret your own data.

3. How do you manage your library?

I primarily use Zotero to manage my citations, but I don’t rely solely on that for managing my papers and reading priorities. When I started my PhD, I built an excel file using slicers to list all of the papers I needed to read. Developing this excel file helped me keep track of what each paper about (summary of abstract and important points), tags for topics and subtopics, the type of paper (review, methods, or research article), and whether or not I had read the paper. The slicers allowed me to filter papers by topic or priority or whether it had been read. It was time consuming, but it helped me to organize the mountain of literature I needed to read for my project so I didn’t feel overwhelmed, and it was invaluable for preparing and studying for my PhD qualifying exam. I don’t think everyone needs to do this, but if you feel overwhelmed by the papers you have downloaded, make a list of them, and organize them by reading priority. (If anyone wants help in building a spreadsheet like this, I’m happy to provide an example and/or instructions on making slicers.)

4. Do you have an app for library management?  If so, what do you like about it?  Are there features you’d like to have but don’t?

As I said before, I use Zotero to manage my citations. It has a really cool web browser extension that allows the program to extract all citation information from an online article automatically. There is also a Microsoft Word add-on that will auto-fill citation and bibliographical information into your manuscript. No need to type up your own citations, just use the add-on and then quality-control the citation information in your bibliography. You can also select which citation style to use based on what you are writing. In addition, Zotero has a functional note-taking feature, but I don’t use it very much. I prefer to take notes in a word doc while I read a paper, but you can just as easily use Zotero notes and it will save it with the paper you took notes from. I like Zotero because it can be used offline and I’ve never had a problem with it generating references.

5. How do you manage bibliographies and references when writing?

(See above answer for my rave review of Zotero)

Logan Pearce

Grad Student, Astronomy, University of Arizona/ Steward Observatory, US Navy veteran

1. How do you stay up to date on the latest literature in your field?

My field (astronomy) heavily relies on the Arxiv preprint server ( Authors post their journal articles to Arxiv typically once they’ve been accepted to be published in a journal, and the articles are open access (can be read without paying journal fees). Arxiv serves as a kind of bulletin board for new research. I signed up for the Arxiv daily digest email for two of the astronomy subfields most relevant to me (planets and stars), and every weeknight I get an email with the papers posted to Arxiv that day. I usually scan the email and see if anything stands out to me as relevant or interesting and worth reading further.

Additionally, as silly as it might seem, twitter has been nice for keeping up with research. I follow a lot of colleagues and folks doing interesting research in my field, and this helps me stay in contact with them and what they’re doing. Frequently people post tweet thread summaries when they release a new paper, or comment on new results. Twitter has been great for me for networking and keeping up on whats going on.

2. When you come across an interesting paper, how do you approach it?  Do you start at the beginning and read through to the end? I imagine not! 

When scanning the Arxiv email, for example, I’ll scan the title and the authors as a first triage to see if a paper is relevant or interesting. If so, I’ll skim the abstract (a paragraph-long summary of 1. what the main science question is, 2. what this paper seeks to address, 3. what the authors did, 4. what they found, 5. why it’s important or what the main takeaway is). If the abstract seems like the paper is relevant, I’ll usually then move to looking at figures and reading figure captions. This gives me a sense of what they found and why it’s significant. I’ll often also read the conclusion. If it’s particularly relevant to my work, that’s when I’ll dig into the methods and results section to see how they did their analysis and more detail on what they found.

So it’s really a process of bouncing around trying to digest the info and efficiently use my time, and at every stage deciding if I need to invest more time in the paper or not. Reading from beginning to end isn’t an efficient use of my time unless the paper is extremely relevant and ground-breaking. If I read every paper end to end I’d never finish!

3. How do you manage your library?  

I will second Patty in wholeheartedly singing the praises of Zotero. Let me count the ways.

  1. Zotero has a browser plug in, so if I find a relevant paper I can just click the plug in and it automatically saves the paper and the citation information directly to my library with just a click.
  2. Zotero saves a local copy of the article, so I can highlight and make comments directly on the PDF and it saves and I can see my notes at any time.
  3. It syncs to the cloud so I can see my library (and notes and comments) from a browser or another computer with the Zotero app.
  4. They just released an iPad app so I can now markup and draw all over article PDFs with my stylus and sync it to all my devices. I also can export my handwritten notes I make on my iPad to my Zotero library so I can read my notes on any device.
  5. I can organize articles into any number of folders, including putting one article into many folders so I can keep track of what science cases it speaks to.
  6. I can export the citation information directly from Zotero and plug it into whatever article I’m writing (I write in LaTeX so I can export my library or folder to BibTex) and make citations easily and quickly.
  7. The browser plug in also will save website snapshots to my library too, so if I want to keep a local copy of a site I reference often it’s easy to do and easy to find.

It’s so much nicer than having a folder of downloaded PDFs on my hard drive. There are other library management apps out there. I tried Mendeley but didn’t like it much, there’s also Papers which is not free. Overall Zotero hit all the functionality I was looking for (and price point – free), and is perfect for me.

4. Do you have an app for library management?  If so, what do you like about it?  Are there features you’d like to have but don’t?

Haha oops! Just answered that. I will say the biggest feature I was missing when I first started with Zotero was the iOS app, and they recently came out with one! (In fact I was part of the beta test for it because I wanted it so bad). So now there is not really any features I wish it had.

5. How do you manage bibliographies and references when writing?

I write in LaTeX, which is a typesetting language. LaTeX uses a bibliography file (Bibtex) with relevant information which you call from within the main document. Then there is a style file that automatically renders the reference in the correct format for you! It’s great. So I just keep a running bibtex file that I use in all my papers so I have all my references ready to go and easily grab.

Zotero also can export your library or parts of the library to bibtex automatically which is very handy, but I wish I had a bit more control over how the bibtex entries look.

Got your own answers to these questions? Send us an email and we’ll feature them in our next blog post!


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