Keeping up with the literature can seem like a full time job. In this post, I want to introduce two technological tools that can help you keep tabs on what’s happening in the research literature and in the broader public conversation: table of contents (TOC) emails and RSS readers.
There are, give or take, a billion academic journals. And each of those journals publishes articles multiple times per year. Academics very rarely have time to read many of these articles in depth (especially articles that come from outside their home field, or that are not directly related to their teaching and research) but may still want to have some sense of what’s happening in an area of research. And even those articles that we do have time to read can still be easy to miss in the flow of publications.
One easy, albeit partial, solution to both problems is to sign up for journal TOC emails. These emails are automatically sent out each time a journal publishes a new issue. Most journals have a convenient way to sign up to receive the TOC email right on the journal homepage (the box above is what this sign up looks like for SAGE journals).
The emails themselves typically contain the titles and authors of the articles in the journal, and sometimes (though not usually) the abstract. You can skim through a TOC in a few seconds to identify articles relevant to you (or to a colleague or student). The cost of adding another journal to your list is simply receiving one more email to your inbox every few months, one that you can always ignore or archive without reading if you’re truly pressed for times. The benefit is having a clear sense of what sorts of topics are appearing in a wide range of journals, ones you might otherwise not come across in your usual reading.
For the journals you follow most closely, you can also usually subscribe to “new content” alerts (by one name or another). These alerts, usually once per month, tell you about papers that have been accepted and uploaded “online first” (that is, papers that are in the queue to be published by the journal. Given that papers are often accepted as much as a year or two in advance of their formal publication, keeping track of “online first” articles can help you learn about important new papers well in advance of the print issue. (Notably, circulating papers on working paper sites like SocArXiv can have a similar beneficial effect of reducing some of the excessive lags in our current publication system.)
For grad students, I highly recommend signing up for TOC emails from, at a minimum, the most prestigious generalist journals in your field (e.g. AJS and ASR in sociology) and the top subfield journals closest to your work (e.g. Sociological Theory if you are interested in theory, Gender & Society if you work on gender, etc.). Beyond that, I personally like to skim subfield journals beyond my main specializations, even if I rarely read more than one or two articles from the journal each year. I also subscribe to TOC emails from the main generalist journals from a few nearby fields (Political Science, History, Anthropology) to get a sense of what conversations are happening in parallel to those I follow in Sociology, and a ton of economics journals (but that’s because I study economists!). At a minimum, though, subscribing to the most relevant TOC emails will give you a much better passive awareness of what’s happening in different parts of the field, which can help to guide decisions about where to submit manuscripts, as well as offering you the chance to identify unexpected overlaps between the work you’re doing and work elsewhere in the field.
TOC emails are great for keeping track of the research literature. But much of the academic conversation – and all of the non-academic conversation! – takes place in other venues.* RSS – aka “Really Simply Syndication” – feeds and RSS readers are tools that helps you keep track of other sorts of publications.
Each site equipped with RSS produces a feed that updates every time the site has new content. So, for example, scatterplot’s RSS feed is available here. If you click the link, it’ll look like gobbledygook. The RSS feed is not designed for you to read, it’s designed to be read by an RSS aggregator like Feedly.** You can use a reader to aggregate and keep track of any site that produces an RSS feed. Every wordpress blog, most newspapers, etc. have one or more RSS feeds. For example, if you want to follow a specific journalist at Vox.com, there’s a feed for just that journalist. Or you can follow a specific subsection of many publications, such as The Economist’s delightful Graphic Detail blog. And while it’s definitely less important for your career to follow academic blogs than academic journals, if you’re reading this post you’re clearly someone who might be interested in keeping tabs on the academic blogosphere. Academic blogs have gotten a little less “unruly” and a bit more organized in recent years, but they have by no means died. ASA sections, academic journals, and various other groups of academics are still producing fantastic content on blogs.
Note the little RSS symbol on the bottom right. That links you to the RSS feed which your aggregator can easily keep track of.
RSS readers have fallen a bit out of fashion, but to me they are still the best way to keep up with many publications. Rather than having to check sites like OrgTheory or scatterplot when you remember to do so, or finding out about a new post because it hits Twitter or Facebook when you happen to be on, an RSS reader will collect new posts into a single site that you can access when you feel like, and quickly sort through relevant posts. As a bonus, RSS readers are also great for keeping track of non-academic and even non-journalistic publications, like your favorite baking blog.
“Info-glut” is a thing and there are no easy solutions. But TOC emails and RSS readers can make it a little easier to keep up with Jones et al.
*(Many journals have also enabled RSS feeds, and so if you really love RSS you may be able to use it in place of TOC emails).
** RIP Google Reader, 2005-2013.