How can academics keep up with the literature?

Mounting workloads and mushrooming publication output are making the task of staying abreast of the latest developments in the literature ever more difficult for academics. Here, eight researchers reflect on their own approaches and offer their tips

August 22, 2019

By Verity Archer, Oliver A. H. Jones, Danielle Sands, Rivka Isaacson, Helen Sword, David Sanders, Saikat Majumdar and Christopher H. Hendon

‘I do much of my reading incidentally, via Twitter, while doing other things like cooking dinner’ 

Twirling books

Not long into my academic career, I took a non-fiction writing course. The instructor had published two highly acclaimed books. “To be a really good writer, you need to read – and read well,” she said. It was self-evident, and yet I immediately bristled.

“I work full-time, I have two children under four, and my partner works long hours in another city. Some days I don’t even manage to have a shower. I’m not reading much,” I said.

She looked confused. “But aren’t you an academic?”

Long-time academics will tell you that reading was once a big part of the job. In a 2017 article “In Praise of Not Not Reading”, published in The Point, Sheila Liming, assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, summed up the problem like this: “Our universities, like the larger culture that supports and depends upon them, do not have the structural wherewithal to recognize the work of reading as work.” Academics are now accountable for what they produce, not what they consume – and what they produce must have a dollar value.

Very few academics have time to read during teaching semesters. Pre-children, I waited until teaching finished before lining up the must-read new publications in my field. To avoid meetings and email “emergencies” during this time, I would take annual leave. Now I use my annual leave to care for my three children while the oldest two take their school holidays. I do much of my reading incidentally, via Twitter, while doing other things like cooking dinner.

Twitter is quick, conversational and to the point. Academics with an interest in a topic will often respond immediately to a specific comment or piece of information related to their field, creating within hours a discussion that would once have taken place over many issues of an academic journal. It can also create real academic communities. As we readily share information and links to articles or documents that might interest colleagues in our fields, we build the collegiality and research networks that are fading within walls of universities themselves.

On the other hand, academics and social media are not natural bedfellows. Our natural state is quiet contemplation, but Twitter can be like a jackhammer or a swarm of flies. It can heighten stress and enhance fatigue. Many “serious” people also note that it is full of nonsense and ignorance. But then, so is life; researchers are trained to find good information and filter out (or make research material of) the bad. Still, Twitter needs to change to accommodate the overworked and overwrought researchers who are increasingly reliant on it. The search function, for one, could improve.

Academics are all short of reading time, but we’re not all in the same boat. There’s a scale of time privilege. Early career researchers, who have the greatest need to rack up measurable outputs in a short time, experience the highest teaching loads and most acute levels of time-poverty. Primary carers like me also find that our early evenings and weekends are no longer available for reading and research. Both these groups struggle to win the research grants that buy out teaching time. If the Mad Hatter had hosted a tea party for academics, he would have explained it like this: “If you can ‘output’ enough research to pull off a grant, you can free up the time needed to do the research.”

Nothing beats deep reading time, and I still indulge in long reads during the few precious hours after the kids go to bed. But confined to such small windows of time, I have become an impatient reader. I dispose of dry, poorly written pieces that I might have found pertinent if I had somehow found time to read them between nine and five.

Academics who have the financial resources to work part-time or to take long breaks from work frequently use their unpaid time to read. And yet, while I look at them with envy, I have to ask: is there something wrong with an industry in which being able to work during unpaid hours is regarded as a privilege?

Verity Archer is a lecturer in sociology at Federation University, Australia.
Wall of books

‘I have given up searching databases and preprint servers. There is just too much content published’

I once asked my father (a retired surgeon) how he kept up with the medical literature. His somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice was to “only read the papers you agree with already”.

I have to admit that this approach is tempting, if not particularly scientific.

Another colleague admits to reading only papers related to the topic or experiment at hand. Again, I can sympathise; finding time in the diary is hard. But by leaving reading until you start a new project or need an introduction for your latest grant application, you run the risk of finding yourself out of touch, in danger of being scooped, or both.

There are certain ways to kill two birds with one stone when you read, such as doing it in the context of journal clubs, which help train your students, or peer reviewing and journal editing, which enhance your CV. Nonetheless, given the increasing demands on my time (and I suspect that of many others), it has become a case of fitting reading in wherever I can.

I make the effort to read (OK, skim) papers each week, but I confess that I have given up searching databases and preprint servers. There is just too much content published and no easy way to find things that are both high quality and relevant, even using keywords.

A commonly recommended tool to filter papers is to sign up to journals’ table of contents (ToC) alerts, to get a list of their latest papers sent direct to your inbox. There are several of these that, in a typical week, I studiously ignore, or delete, or run out of time to read. But I have a few go-to journals whose home pages I make a point of checking because I know they always have interesting content. These include Analyst, Analytical Chemistryand the Journal of Chemical Education.

A related option that a colleague recently alerted me to is the American Chemical Society’s mobile app, which provides personalised, up-to-the minute access to new peer-reviewed research content via my phone (serving a similar function to journal RSS feeds). I have been trying this on my commute to work recently, and I am finding it very useful.

Also easy to access on your phone, social media is very popular with scientists as a place to connect with your community, post your latest paper and talk science. The problem is that it can be a bit self-selecting – you see only your friends’ papers – meaning that you can miss quite a lot of the interesting stuff. Twitter can also sometimes be a bit overwhelming to keep track of, especially if you follow a lot of accounts. I have found it handy to follow journals of interest, as many will tweet the “editor’s choice” paper each week. The other critical thing on Twitter is knowing the right hashtag. For me, #nmrchat, #massspec and #metabolomics will often give a list of interesting articles, which can then lead me to other relevant papers.

I have also found it beneficial to read the news-and-views articles, with Chemical & Engineering News a personal favourite. Their content is less rigorous than that of full journal articles but much broader. And if you do want the specifics of a featured paper, a link to it is usually provided.

How to choose what to read? Trite as it sounds, I am not sure there is a “best way”. Everybody is different and has unique demands on their time. It is probably a case of experimenting with the different tools available – which is, at least, something we scientists are used to.

Oliver A. H. Jones is an associate professor of chemistry at RMIT University, Melbourne.
Hands on the face of a statue

‘Conference conversations reveal the key terms of a debate faster than trawling through all the recent literature’

Working across literary studies, philosophy and the environmental humanities makes keeping up with the academic literature virtually impossible. Fortunately, I’ve realised that keeping up with the field is easier – and often more fun.

With this is mind, I go to lots of conferences and workshops. I also run academic events myself, and these often require me to get to grips with a topic quickly in order to invite speakers and chair discussions.

Talking is no substitute for reading, of course; but I’ve found that conference conversations reveal the key terms of a debate faster than trawling through all the recent literature – and it’s good to be reminded that thinking is a collective activity. I think of these dialogues as a kind of “pre-reading” because they are often sufficient to trigger the writing of an abstract or to gauge whether an idea has legs. In a similar way, I’ve learned to look at the big pile of unread books on my desk not as an accusation of work not done but rather as an indication of work started: evidence of growing knowledge in an area with which I’m beginning to get to grips.

Pre-reading eventually leads to actual reading. For me, this happens in bursts, when I’m writing a proposal or a paper or designing a new course to teach. I’m pretty old school about it: I hole up in the British Library for a few days and order absolutely everything on a topic, or I sit at home and tackle my pile of purchases, inspired by conferences, my PhD students and internet browsing. While this irregular pattern of reading activity has been triggered by my desire to minimise the term-time juggling, it works. Reading in clusters gives me a better overview than piecing together the field by reading a book or an article each week.

Knowing what to read is a case of supplementing old channels of information (publishers’ lists, library searches, journal subscriptions) with new ones. For some areas of my work, particularly fast-moving fields such as animal studies and post-humanism, social media has become invaluable for staying on top of new publications and current discussions. If I’m feeling out of touch, I take on more peer reviewing for publishers and write some book reviews. I also keep an eye on relevant prize shortlists. This summer, I’ve been downloading some of the listed texts for the Booker and the Wainwright prizes on to my Kindle and using them as holiday reading. I’m lucky that, even when it’s part of my research, reading contemporary fiction and nature writing still feels like fun.

The impossibility of comprehensiveness in interdisciplinary reading allows me to be a bit more exploratory in my choices than I might otherwise be, but the anxiety that my PhD examiners would produce a crucial book or article that I’d missed has never quite left me. Once I’ve started reading, I still have to fight the urge to continue until I’ve read absolutely everything.

The real challenge, however, is not so much to keep up with new publications as to address the bigger gaps in my reading that research exposes. Sometimes this is paralysing: How can I do philosophy without reading the Greeks in Greek? How can I write about nature without a complete understanding of each of the German Romanticists?

To placate this inner enforcer of the canon, I like to have some slow, historical reading on the go – or at least in the pile!

Danielle Sands is lecturer in comparative literature and thought and director of graduate studies in the department of modern languages, literatures and cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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