A few years ago I bemoaned the fact that I had effectively stopped reading the academic literature. Despite apparently being a common phenomenon among mid-career academics, at least based on my conversations with colleagues, it provoked a nagging guilt. How can we tell our students to read constantly if we don’t practice what we preach?
Over the years the table of contents emails continued to pile up, causing permanent low-level stress as I realised how much interesting, relevant and important science was simply passing me by. But there was no time to do anything about it, nor would there ever be. With a heavy heart I deleted them all. This has, in effect, blinded me to several years of output in almost all of the journals that I used to follow*.
That’s not to say I haven’t been reading any papers. Every time I need to write a manuscript, proposal or lecture, I’ve carried out a targeted search and found what I needed to get the job done. This is a limited way to learn about science though; it doesn’t expose you to as many new ideas. I was raiding the literature, not reading it.
I’ve now come up with a new system based on the principle that it’s better to do a small amount well than attempt too much and fail. This involves selecting ten journals for which my aim is to scan the contents for every issue, and read the papers that are most compelling. They make up my ‘essential’ list. Next are a set of ten for which I will scan them if I have time, but if the next issue comes out before I’ve had a chance, they’ll be ignored. This means I will only follow a maximum of 20 journals at any given time**.
Time-permitting: American Naturalist, Nature Communications, Methods in Ecology & Evolution, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PPEES, Forest Ecology and Management, J Veg Sci, Biotropica, GEB, Journal of Biogeography.
I could easily list another ten, or twenty, that I would love to read if there were room in my life, but there isn’t. It’s been a tough decision-making process. If you’ve tried something similar, then what did you end up with? How did you decide? If anyone is interested then my rationale for selection is below the fold.
I’ve focussed here on how to keep pace with new literature. It doesn’t even mention other issues such as the value of reading older papers, reading outside your own narrow field of study, or whether sometimes it’s best not to read at all. Some people will even argue that the whole concept of journals is becoming obselete, and in a world of online search engines we no longer need them as anything other than gatekeepers. I have some sympathy for this view, but the Brave New World has yet to arrive, so I’m making use of the system we have.
How the 20 titles were chosen:
My list is unlikely to overlap completely with someone who isn’t a forest community ecologist. The reasoning, however, could be more general.
First there are the top-tier journals which publish the most influential papers (Science, Nature). That’s not to say they publish the best research, but they’re certainly the most widely-read and cited, and the opportunity cost of missing out on papers is greatest. So they have to be on the list.
Next are those that routinely publish things that are interesting or relevant. Some general journals routinely surprise me with interesting content that I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered (PRSB, and PNAS, especially in the Applied Physics section). Other subject-specific ones manage to include at least one paper every issue that I feel compelled to look at. I’ve added Nature Ecology & Evolution because, although it’s new, it’s filling a gap that I want to watch. Finally, by reading reviews in TREE you can often pick up on novel perspectives and directions without having to follow everything that’s out there.
What have I missed out? Oddly, of the last ten journals in which I’ve published, only one is on the list. This partly reflects my determination to read and aim high, even if I don’t always get my own papers in (many whole careers pass without a single paper in Nature or Science). Also, I can do my reading-up on more focussed questions as and when I have a manuscript to write. That’s what Web of Knowledge is for.
I’ve dropped a lot of general science journals whose papers attract lots of publicity, but with limited ecology content (e.g. Scientific Advances, Biology Letters, PLoS Biology). I have to assume that if something ecological does end up in one of these, I’m likely to hear about it via another route.
Finally, there’s a general recognition that I can’t follow so many fields at once. I can’t keep on top of the literature in conservation, diversity analysis, theoretical ecology, systematic botany, ecological entomology, spatial statistics and forestry all at the same time. It’s ok to have broad interests but attempting to maintain broad intake of material is paralysing.
* The long list of journals was, in truth, only because of working on a textbook which necessitated taking a broad view of the literature. Normal people really don’t need to inflict this on themselves.
** If you’re an editor of a journal that isn’t on the list, and you think it should be, then you’re welcome to pitch in the comments. But unless you’re willing to follow the example of Biotropica editor Emilio Bruna (@brunalab) and engage in a rap battle with another journal to take their place then I’m not interested.