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Academic struggling with staying on top of reading current research

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  • Academic struggling with staying on top of reading current research

    I'm a math professor. GTD works very well for me in most areas of my professional and personal life. One where I'm struggling, though, is on staying caught up on reading. I need an effective way to prioritize and read new research that comes out in my field.

    Here's what I'm currently doing and what is and is not working. Most new papers that I want to read are posted on a preprint server called the arxiv. I get an email every day from the server with about 40 papers that have been posted in the areas I want to stay in touch with. The email includes abstracts of the papers; every day either first thing or over lunch I scan through the day's email and identify the papers that I want to look at, and flag them (by bookmarking them in my web browser).

    After a certain amount of effort, I've disciplined myself to stay caught up with these arxiv emails. What I don't have, though, is a good system for what happens next. Of the papers I flag, probably 1/3 I'll discover I'm not interested in once I start reading, about 1/3 I'm happy just to read the introduction, and 1/3 I would in the ideal world read in more detail. I usually flag 5-10 papers a week for a closer look, so we're talking say 3 papers a week to glance at and not look further, 3 papers to read the introduction of, and 2 papers to read in more detail. This is more reading than I have time to do. I probably have time to read the intros of 3 papers a week, and skim one paper a week in more detail; delving into the nitty-gritty of a paper is much more time-consuming even than that, say one every two months.

    Right now all my "closer look" papers effectively go in one big pile -- I download them all to my computer, to library management software. And there the pile sits -- it gets bigger and bigger. If there's a paper I know I'd like to look at in detail, I print it out and put it in a special "to read" pile on my desk. But I don't have any sort of system for processing this pile. So that pile sits on my desk and gets bigger and bigger.

    And furthermore, I don't have a good way of deciding which of the papers I'd like to read I actually will read. I don't have time to read 2 new papers a week in detail, so I need some way to triage. And I need some way that is effective that will keep me up-to-date on the next step of processing this "inbox." The daily emails are good for that: there's a folder in my inbox that they go to that acts like a special-purpose inbox for this task. Beyond that, though, I get stuck.

    In summary: I think the biggest things I'd like to tweak about this system is an effective way to triage which of the reading I'd like to do I actually will do, and how to manage the in-piles for the next stage of processing these new research papers.

    Are there any other academics or others who have lots of reading coming in every day, more than they can possibly do, who have figured out good ways to manage this?

    Thanks,

    asstprof

  • #2
    Hi asstprof,

    I'm going to give you a really unhelpful answer which is to say I have exactly your problem and no solution ! I sometimes get stuck slightly earlier than you. I move the arxiv email alerts into an email folder which I go through once or twice a week. If I see something that looks interesting I open it up in Safari and then download in Papers and save in Papers to a folder for Review. Then I review these and either dump or move to a Read Further folder. You'll notice nothing has been read yet Then I read them when I can. Teaching and admin dominate research unfortunately. I do have a postdocs who I am working with so they will do some of the reading and alert me to stuff worth looking at on the arxiv. It's a tough problem. Sorry I don't have an answer to it.

    Michael

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    • #3
      I'm a physicist, and I try to keep up with hep-lat, hep-th and hep-ph on the arxiv. While the daily/weekly/month flow is daunting, I do have a few thoughts that may be helpful.

      Where do your best insights come from? In other words, what do you read that helps your own work the most? Generally, I am interested in: a) specific topics close to my own research interests; b) papers by people whose work I generally want to read; c) things that are genuinely new and interesting; d) review articles that explain things I haven't had time to keep up with; e) important results in my field, in physics and in science that I want to know about. I've listed these in the approximate order of their importance to me.

      a) is obvious, but it's important to make the distinction between things I am working on now, and things I might work on at some future time. b) and c) are where new research ideas can come from. Review papers serve multiple functions: useful for my students to read, useful as reference, useful for catching-up, et cetera. Stuff in e) is changing for me. Take the Higgs boson as an example: I don't need to read arxiv papers on this, because I'm alerted by other mechanisms, e.g. blogs, and can look at the latest Atlas/CMS presentations myself to keep up. rss feeds have largely replaced other sources of news in physics and science as a whole.

      I read differently papers in different categories. Papers in a) I read quickly, and then usually read again more carefully. Things in b) and c) I may read only enough to remember looking at it. On the other hand, if a paper catches my interest, I may come back to it several times over weeks, thinking about how it fits in to what I know. I rarely read rss feeds during the workday, but mostly at night and occasionally early in the morning.

      There are things I don't want to spend time on, such as obvious extensions and variations on previous work. I try to avoid reading in detail papers I "should" read. Your next actions either attract or repel, and "should" usually means repel.

      I try to use the best tools I can find to track papers so that once a paper has left something behind in my brain I can find it again. It's frustrating to look for the same paper over and over again. Piles of physical paper are not a substitute for some sort of electronic system for managing papers. As long as I have a reference to a paper, I don't have to feel bad about not having read it in detail.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by mcogilvie View Post
        I try to use the best tools I can find to track papers so that once a paper has left something behind in my brain I can find it again. It's frustrating to look for the same paper over and over again. Piles of physical paper are not a substitute for some sort of electronic system for managing papers. As long as I have a reference to a paper, I don't have to feel bad about not having read it in detail.
        Nice summary of how it should be done mcogilvie. Thanks.

        Can you elaborate on the tools you use for handling the papers you want to keep ? I have tried Papers and still use it but I'm not completely happy with it. Currently I have some things in Papers, some in Bibdesk and some in a folder called Eprints filed in subfolder named by first author! What the actual preprint file is called follows no pattern.

        Also how do you handle research ideas that are someday/maybe in GTD speak ? Again mine are all over the place: some in OmniFocus, some it text or tex files and some in paper notebooks.

        Thanks - Michael

        Comment


        • #5
          One of the things I'm realizing is that I can/should do a much better job of organizing papers that I have flagged from the arxiv. (I also use Papers, but hadn't been using folders/collections within it at all.)

          I like mcogilvie's list of the different reasons one might want to read a paper:

          Where do your best insights come from? In other words, what do you read that helps your own work the most? Generally, I am interested in: a) specific topics close to my own research interests; b) papers by people whose work I generally want to read; c) things that are genuinely new and interesting; d) review articles that explain things I haven't had time to keep up with; e) important results in my field, in physics and in science that I want to know about.
          I feel as though one thing I am doing well, by scanning the arxiv regularly, is getting an overview of what new is out there and keeping up on "the news" in my field in a general sense, and that I don't need to read papers in (e) more carefully, in general. Papers in (b) and (c) are worth a scan at least; papers in (a) are also worth a scan and possibly a read in more depth. Review articles are useful for the reasons you point out.

          I think I will set up several different folders within Papers, for papers that I have downloaded from the arxiv and want to read beyond the abstract.
          -- Inbox, for papers waiting processing
          -- To scan -- papers in (a)-(c) that I want to at least look over the introduction
          -- Review articles to scan -- I think it's worthwhile to separate these out: like mcogilvie I read review articles differently and for different reasons than other articles
          -- To read -- papers that I want to look at in more detail
          -- Backlog -- for all of the papers I've downloaded to Papers already that are sitting there waiting to be looked at

          At minimum this will keep me better organized. But I can also add a task to my weekly and monthly reviews to check in on my reading, which hopefully will get me to be more aware of the reading that I have an intention to do at some point.

          I'm never going to be able to do enough reading to keep up with the inflow. What I want to do is to make choices about the reading I do do from the best and most aware possible place. Rght now a lot of the time my choice turns into, "I have an infinite amount of reading to do, let me do something else instead." I hope that if I'm better organized about research reading, then I'll do a bit more of it.

          Comment


          • #6
            I forgot to say that I'm also interested in Michael's questions:

            Can you elaborate on the tools you use for handling the papers you want to keep ?

            Also how do you handle research ideas that are someday/maybe in GTD speak ?
            I feel badly organized about the first question. For the second I do some things that I do like. I have my research files organized into three main categories: Writing, for papers where the research is done or mostly done, and I'm working on an actual article; Current, for active research projects; and Someday/Maybe for projects that are on the back burner. Within each of these, I have separate hanging folders for each research project. I also have a general S/M folder. If I have an idea of something that I might want to work on someday, I write it on a piece of paper and put it there.

            When I finish a paper, I either clean out the folder completely (if everything went into the printed version), or move the notes into a new folder in Current or Someday/Maybe if there are ideas there that may be part of another paper someday.

            I have a reminder in my tickler every 3 months to check my S/M research folders and the general S/M file, to see if any projects should be moved up to active research. This way I feel less as though I'm losing track of good ideas.

            What do other people do?

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            • #7
              Originally posted by mmurray View Post
              Can you elaborate on the tools you use for handling the papers you want to keep ? I have tried Papers and still use it but I'm not completely happy with it. Currently I have some things in Papers, some in Bibdesk and some in a folder called Eprints filed in subfolder named by first author! What the actual preprint file is called follows no pattern.
              I think we have to acknowledge that the on-line versions are THE master copies, and the on-line search tools are just going to get better. For example, Inspires, the successor to Sprires, provides a ton of information related to each paper it indexes. There is probably no point in us storing mere copies of papers except for: a) convenience and b) our own organization and possible annotation. Any software I use has to manage bibliographic information as well as my own notes, plus pdf's, and link gracefully to online resources. I have 3 os x computers I use regularly, so I need to sync between them. iOS sync would be nice too. In my opinion, Bibdesk doesn't meet those requirements. I never upgraded to Papers 2, because Papers 1 had no sync. Sente does, but my university is now recommending Zotero, which is now quite usable, and I use that. I don't feel bad about stuff I have in other programs, because I still have that data, but I may never go back to it. It's the present value of the data that's important. I'm not running an archival library.


              Originally posted by mmurray View Post
              Also how do you handle research ideas that are someday/maybe in GTD speak ? Again mine are all over the place: some in OmniFocus, some it text or tex files and some in paper notebooks.
              Again, it's not all equally valuable. I put about 15 ideas into someday/maybe from a summer program two years ago, and I don't think I did anything with any of it. So now I keep my notes as notes and file them away. It's the "should" factor: I had a great conversation with someone, but other things are more important. My "real" someday/maybe are things I really want to do, and are generally part of a coherent research program. One thing I don't do anymore is put an individual paper on a someday/maybe list to read, because I know that is unlikely to cause me to go back to the paper. I will go back to a paper if I have information in a reference system, or can find it using search. If I have worked on something enough to generate a tex file, I keep it around for quite a while in a project directory. I just put some unpublished material I worked out a few years ago into a review article, in fact, because it fit as a part of a systematic exposition.

              Comment


              • #8
                Not an Academic but Similar Problem

                I'm not an academic but I have a similar problem. I try to keep up with current reading in a number of fields,
                genetic advances in ruminant biology
                sheep reproduction
                biodiversity research
                grassland management
                historical knitting
                historical weaving
                Anglo Saxon weapons & armor
                rare breeds
                nutrition research on low carb diets
                and about 15 other general topics.

                I have several google searches that send me an automatic list of items that meet my search criteria.

                I don't have as much access to the scientific papers so I tend to get the abstracts and then try to get a friend with journal access to get me the papers as PDF files. I can't get back to them so I always download the PDF copies of anything that looks remotely interesting onto my own machine.

                I'm filing them in an electronic system. I change the file names to indicate contents and then do an index of those folders in DEVONThink. In my DT database I have folders that are by subject and I have a read/review folder and a read now folder. The read/review contains papers whose abstracts looked interesting. The mobil index is with me all the time and the read/review and read now folders are also with me all the time on my iPhone.

                What I was doing is setting a weekly recurring project to read abstracts of papers and get copies of ones that looked interesting. About half of those just go into the filing system and never get read until I do a search because I need some more info. About half were going into the read/review folder and I'd chip away at them by reading at least the abstract, procedures and conclusions of every paper. If they were still interesting or useful I'd move them to a read now folder on my Mac and try to knock off 2-3 papers a week from that folder.

                What I am starting to do is to put the read/review and read now folders of papers on my iPad and then carry it with me so I can read them anywhere. That project has prompted a search for a different purse that can carry the iPad comfortably. Another thing I am considering is buying a new kindle that can take PDF files directly without conversion and using that as I like the kindle screen for reading black and white stuff better. I have bits of time where I can read that I could use to try to keep caught up.

                Not sure that helps but it's how I'm dealing with all the papers I want to read.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Have you considered speed reading?

                  I'm a bioinformatics PhD student, and one of the best things I have done in for myself at uni was to enrol on a speed reading course. Before, I was a very slow reader. I used to "pronounce" each word in my head as I read. It took forever to read anything, especially 20 page papers!

                  After the course, which was only one day long, my reading rate increased tenfold and they included tests to demonstrate that comprehension stayed at the same level of ~80%. Now, I only slow down when I read for pleasure or if I'm dealing with difficult concepts (which academic papers do have, but only sparsely).

                  Anyway, you can't manufacture more time so the choice is to not read the papers, drop other tasks to make time for them, or learn speed reading.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by cfoley View Post
                    Now, I only slow down when I read for pleasure or if I'm dealing with difficult concepts (which academic papers do have, but only sparsely).

                    Anyway, you can't manufacture more time so the choice is to not read the papers, drop other tasks to make time for them, or learn speed reading.
                    Huh. It's an interesting thought, but I just don't think that would work for math papers. In fact my struggle is often to make myself slow down enough to grasp any of the arguments...

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Maybe maths papers are more densely packed than chemistry ones.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Read or Study?

                        I've started distinguishing between studying and reading. I get a mix of reading to do that's within my field of expertise and well outside it. Reading material is something I can pick up and read and take notes. Study material is something I can't understand straight away, I might need to use Wikipedia to look up some of the terms, or need to mind map it to link all the bits together and try and work out what the writer is saying. As an engineer, reading biological science journal articles can get tough, so I would put identify them as study materials not read/review items.
                        Read review I think you could speed read, but not study items.

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                        • #13
                          A most interesting topic. I have struggled with this same issue as well. I am not an academician either, but anything I come across on the web that I would like to read later I now simply send to my Instapaper queue.

                          I have now also a weekly recurring action in my task manager where it prompts me to spend half an hour three times a week to specifically read through my Instapaper articles.

                          By the way, while we are on the subject of Instapaper, I now sort my articles by oldest first. This way, I am not tempted to work with the newest additions first and let the old stuff sit there, ruminate, and possibly become irrelevant as time goes by

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