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When someone is just starting out, they can be overwhelmed with the number of journal articles published each month. Reading everything published seems impossible due to time constraints.

After someone has enough experience, they naturally watch for articles which are impressive, see where these are published and where the articles it cites are published but when someone is just starting out, it's not clear where to begin.

How does one go about identifying the best journals to keep up on when they have no experience reading any particular journal?

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    You might want to change your question by replacing "journals" by "articles". Because, I think researchers choose articles, preprints, books, lecture notes, etc to read. Nobody chooses to read all articles of "Journal of Functional Analysis", for instance. – user4511 Jun 30 '13 at 17:37
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    I don't follow journals at all. I follow authors and topics, and I chase citations. – JeffE Jul 1 '13 at 5:50
  • @JeffE And how do you find the authors to follow? How do you find new authors? – earthling Jul 1 '13 at 13:02
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    I find new authors when they publish something in a topic I follow, or when they cite/are cited by one of the authors I follow (or I hear something at a conference/in the hallway/on the street). I find new topics when one of the authors I follow writes about/cites/is cited by something on that topic (or I hear something at a conference/in the hallway/on the street). The base case for this recursion was my advisor. – JeffE Jul 1 '13 at 14:53
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This depends on your field. In mathematics, physics, and a few related areas there is arXiv.org. From which you get rss feeds or e-mail announcements for individual research areas. This is particularly helpful because there are a huge amount a journals in mathematics and physics and you could never keep up with all of them.

The added benefit is that most of what you run across on arXiv hasn't made it to a journal yet so it is relatively new and free. Then after you find useful and interesting articles you can keep track of them and find out where they were eventually published.

Another set of tools that can be useful is a good indexing service that lets you trace backwards and forwards the references from a paper that you know is important. This lets you see not only what the important paper references but also who has referenced it and where they did so.

Because of the fact that my research field does not yet have a single journal dedicated to my field these are the tools that I use most to find new literature and see what is going on. Of course if you are still looking around for a research field to get into there are the big general topic journals in each area which are a good place to start if you want a big picture.

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Ask your peers and mentors. There are plenty of low quality journals, and you would not benefit from reading from those journals especially when you are just entering the field. I currently subscribe to the table of contents of 4~6 top journals in my field via RSS or email. It took me years to identify and settle in this list. I got to appreciate those journals for their high impact in the community. Before I entered grad school, I often read random articles with cool titles that I would find via search engines, but they were not too helpful in the long run.

Also, reading one article carefully is often more valuable than skimming through five articles. You may feel that you are falling behind since there is a constant stream of "exciting" articles, but in the grand scheme of things, only a few will survive the sand of time. Alternatively to reading journals, another good way of keeping up with exciting research frontend is to go to academic conferences and talks (in person or virtually via e.g., videolectures.net).

  • As you wrote "It took me years to identify and settle in this list" - looking back is there any way to speed up the process so someone new does not need to wait years before making the most use of their time? – earthling Jun 30 '13 at 23:39
  • Actively maintaining this list over your entire research career is making good use of your time. – JeffE Jul 1 '13 at 5:48
  • @JeffE My point was that it is very easy for someone just starting out to waste many, many hours reading articles which hold little value. After some time, it gets easier. How could someone skip (or minimize) that first painful part and get to the second part sooner? – earthling Jul 1 '13 at 13:04
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    It's not clear that "minimizing that painful part" is useful. Part of what you need to learn is how to filter that list; like anything else, you can only learn this by trying, failing, trying again, failing less, and so on. – JeffE Jul 1 '13 at 14:57
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I agree with Memming's excellent answer that you should leverage the informed opinions of your mentors and peers to decide what articles are of interest.

I would advise you to attend talks/presentations at conferences or at your university.

  1. Attending a talk requires a relatively small time investment (20 minutes to an hour), so you get a quick overview of a research project without having to spend hours reading the article. If the speaker is any good, you should have gotten the main points from his/her talk.
  2. During a talk, other researchers like to ask questions or even in some cases argue with the presenter. By hearing the types of questions that people raise in public, and talking to people in private to see how they assess other people's work, you understand better how other people perceive the research project.

Although each person has his/her own opinion about a research project, nevertheless, people in a particular scientific community tend to have opinions that fall within a particular spectrum. By interacting with people and asking them what they think of a particular project, you will learn how to calibrate your opinions with the opinions of other researchers in your field.

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As has been mentioned in comments to other answers, one has to slog through things. A similar process is accumulating a list of restaurants (food vendors, grocery stores) from which you prefer to get food. You can stay within a comfort zone of, say, Mexican and Thai restaurants to make sure you always get something satisfying, but then you miss out on the possible delights found in fusion restaurants.

You can go by reviews of experienced critics, but their notion of best may not be yours. The only sense in which time is "wasted" is through your own judgment. Even if you get a bad experience from reading a particular article, you need such feedback in order to develop your sense of what is best. It is not always rewarding to copy other's idea of best and hope it works for you.

There are strategies for forming a list to try, but you still have to test the list. In particular, if you know a good starting point, search by author, subject, or title to find similar articles. If you know a bad starting point, do the same kind of search, but ignore (filter out) the corresponding author or subject or title.

For a list of potential starting points, check out articles that have received awards for exposition. They can be a guide to quality. In mathematics, two such prizes are the Steele and Polya prizes; search to see what is available in your field.

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Although there are brilliant and highly respectable journals and articles in basically every field of study, I think the concept of "best articles to read" is not well defined. There are, in my opinion, three important questions to answer.

Who is reading the article. This refers both to your position (a MSc student, a PhD student, a senior researcher) and your current role, or task (to prepare an overview, to write down a solid intro for your own paper, to fill the Bibliography section in your theses, to serve as a referee, to discover new breakthrough ideas). In my opinion, one can rarely read articles just "for their own fun", unless they are at a very senior level.

Answer to the first question will help you to narrow down the search space. For example, new ideas -> arXiv, classical results -> textbooks, etc.

What are you going to get from the article. "To understand it all" is probably too generic answer, and in my experience, very rarely it is really necessary to get all details from the paper. Do you want to understand the role of this paper in a big study? (maybe it is sufficient to read through Intro and Conclusion). Do you want to understand if their method / approach is better than yours? (maybe you should focus on Discussion or Comparison sections).

Answer to this question can dramatically reduce the time spent on each paper, and ultimately increase the number of papers you can explore.

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Great answers so far. I'll suggest another approach similar to "snowball sampling" in social science.

Basically, you let really good/important articles (and journals) lead you to other really good/important articles (and journals).

Start with a few articles that stand out to you (or your adviser or mentor). They might be survey articles that assess the state of research and future directions, or they might be seminal articles that spawned new lines of research.

Then look at the editorial policies and editorial boards for the journals that published these papers. Are there any patterns that seem to tie these particular journals to these particular articles?

Now look at the articles that are cited in these initial papers, especially those that are described as "seminal" or "pioneering", etc. Repeat the process of looking at the journal editorial policies and editorial boards for these articles.

Also, using Google Scholar, look at the articles that cite your original set. Which journals seemed to publish the most follow-up articles, and promote debate or contrary research? Were there Special Issues of journals devote to the ideas or methods in the original set?

Rinse and repeat :-).

Through this procedure, you will usually settle on a set of 2 to 5 journals in a field (or sub-field) that are considered "important" for the type of research you are most interested in.

The advantage of this method is that you will home in on the journals that are important for your interests and focus, not just what everyone else (worldwide) might think is important.

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I find Google Scholar (GS) extremely useful for me. For example, if I start to learn "model checking", GS will show me this result, which shows a paper of KL McMillan with 4633 citations, and a book of EM Clark with 9438 citations. They are the first people I need to follow.

I then go to the homepages of the authors, to check which papers they published in which conference in the recent years? big names work on the main stream, and publish papers in top conferences.

Mircrosoft Academic Search (MAS) is also useful. For example, as model checking is a subfield of software engineering, I check the conference ranking in MAS, which tells me the top are ICSE, ITC, CAV... This confirms my guess, as both EM Clark and KL McMillan published > 20 papers in CAV. So this conference is first in the list I need to follow.

Google Scholar also recommends papers for you based on your published papers.

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The first thing is to identify the keywords/topics you are interested in. Then "google scholar" or "web of science" them. Find the top cited articles and identify which journals these articles were from. The other way to identify the top journals is checking the impact factors of these journals. Then find journals with higher impact factors. Go through the journals to identify the articles/topics you are interested in.

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