The Secret Tool to Make Scientific Articles Find You

Summer is here! For graduate students this means two things: the undergrads are gone, and campus is finally a half-decent place to work. Now that I’m back in this hemisphere for a bit, my main focus is writing. Between all the projects I have (piecing together my proposal, writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation, and drafting a manuscript), I’m aiming to crank out at least 100 pages of quality in the next three to four months.

Since this is scientific writing we’re talking about, every statement I make needs to be backed up and referenced. I can’t just go around making crazy, wild claims. I’d just look dumb, and nobody wants that.

“Ok, I need relevant, current papers. How do I get them?”

After two years, I’ve amassed quite the load of papers. I am slowly reaching the point where I can name papers by their author. I used to think it was so cool when my advisor would say: “Oh look at so-and-so’s paper from 2006 from such and such journal. That’ll answer your question.” How on earth does he keep a career’s worth of information in his head?

Anyways, even though I have a formidable collection, I still need keep up with new publications. I do not have time to do random searches every week.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a tool that make the process of finding references much, much less time-consuming.

Use Google Reader to stay up to date on relevant journals

For those who may not be familiar, Google Reader is web-based tool that can read Atom and RSS feeds. You’ll need a Google Account to use this. If you don’t have one, get one–it’s free and oh so useful. Most websites with changing content (online journals, newspapers, blogs, etc) utilize RSS feeds to share their new material. I used to use Google Reader for just blogs and webcomics; however, it can be a much more powerful tool if you use it to subscribe to academic journals.

For example, since I study human nutrition, I want to stay current on the Journal of Nutrition. I then go to their website and click on “Subscribe to RSS Feed”. You’ll see a bunch of jibberish. This is why you need an RSS reader. Copy the URL from this page and paste it into the (big, red) Subscribe box on the top left of the Google Reader page. You will then have all of the journal article titles and abstracts filed neatly for your perusal. Each time a new issue gets published, you will have all of the new titles and abstracts conveniently waiting for you. If you find an article worth your time, click on the box with the arrow on the right side of the page to be taken to the full article.

Bonus: Share the love

If you find a really outstanding paper, send a pdf of it to a labmate with a relevant project. This will show three things:

  1. You are on top of things and responsible.
  2. You are engaged with the work of experts in your field.
  3. You look out for your labmates.
Leverage your awesome time-saving approach to help others. It is crucial to develop good relationships with your peers during grad school. Even a small action like sharing an article can be the start of a beautiful collaboration.


5 Minute Action Steps

If this sounds like a good plan for you, here are three steps to get you started in 5 minutes:

  1. Sign up for a Google Account and open Google Reader.
  2. Find one relevant academic journal (Hint: look at the last paper your advisor told you to read. What journal does it come from?)
  3. Subscribe to that journal’s RSS feed.

Perfect! You now have journal articles coming to you instead of you hunting for them. You now have one less thing to do!

Go do something incredible.

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