Thursday, May 26, 2011

Too Many Papers


Time for some bellyaching. I have a collection of RSS feeds from various research journals that show me recently published papers I might be interested in. This morning I had 208 new papers waiting for me.

208 papers that might interest me. In one day. Just from the small subset of journals I have RSS feeds for. I spent an hour just eyeing through the titles, and of those 208 papers there were five that I clicked through and will take a real look at.

First, this tells me I need to set up better filtering. Most papers are of no interest to me at all, but most journals will simply push a list of all their published papers and not give me a choice of what to see. The problem with filtering is of course that I might miss papers that turn out to be relevant. I can live with that.

Second, it is incredibly annoying when a journal RSS feed contains only the title, not the abstract - "Nature", "Science", "Nature Neuroscience", "Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience" and "Neural Computation" are all guilty of this. If I have 200+ new items to go through then I am not going to click through every promising title to find out what the damn paper is actually about. I end up only clicking on the papers that are obviously relevant and ignoring the rest. Yes, I may miss relevant papers, but I can live with that.

Oh, and a special mention to "Science", which has no feed with only the new papers. Instead they see fit to publish only an RSS feed with everything in their latest issue. I'm not very inclined to read editorials, "Science 50 years ago" or blurbs about new books or exciting new laboratory equipment when all I want is to dig out from under my morning pile of papers. And sometimes they publish their RSS feed before the corresponding web page is actually available. If I get an error page when looking for a paper then I am not likely to remember to try again tomorrow. In fact, the "Science" feed is annoying enough that I consider removing it. I may miss relevant papers that way, but I can live with that.


How can I live with missing potentially relevant papers? Because I'm drowning in relevant papers already. The challenge isn't lack of information; the challenge is to not get overwhelmed by all the new information washing over me every day. As I said, I found five potentially useful papers this morning; that's a typical number, and I might stumble on to another few before the day is over, without even looking. Just a quick look at the new papers, perhaps follow a reference or two of theirs in turn and I'll spend most of my morning catching up with new papers. A focused search for information will easily eat up the rest of my day.

I'm very unlikely to miss something truly important. I'll hear about any ground-breaking new paper soon enough. But the vast majority of papers aren't ground-breaking; most are barely of interest to anybody but their authors1, and is it's relevant to me I'll likely stumble on to the same info in some other paper later on.

This flood of papers keeps getting worse. I - and everybody else - will have to continue to narrow down our interests, to drop sources, to become quicker and more ruthless with out sifting, and - yes - missing things in the process. If we don't, catching up with current research will leave us with no time for any actual research of our own.

What will go? If my own experience is any guide, any journal that makes finding and reading their papers difficult will lose out. Anything I can't find through normal searches; any publication with restricted online access; any paper I can't download directly. If it's truly ground-breaking, then I'll hear about it. If not, I'll just find the same information somewhere else.

#1 Yes, this goes for my own work as well. Most of science is about crossing t's and dotting i's, and makes very little direct difference for anybody else. That doesn't mean it's useless; it's all work that needs to be done, and the rare, high-profile breakthroughs depend on it for them to happen. This should perhaps really be the subject of a separate post.


  1. Very interesting. I was once a student on my way to starting a PhD and decided against it after seeing how the system was actually working and being disappointed by it. But I had not realised just how bad it was going to be a few years later, with publication (though probably not in prestigious journals) and getting information about publications both becoming easier.

    However, I've since understood what you already know: it's worth the hassle (though it would be even better without). Maybe I should start thinking about that PhD again ;)

    I wonder if there might be a business idea here, offering a more efficient way to find relevant papers. Hum... Thinking about it, that would be google's business and if they can't do it, it's probably because journals are making it too difficult for them and they would for anybody else.

    Have fun reading!

  2. I dropped the RSS feeds from journals. As you say, the yield from the harvest is too low.


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