As someone not in academia but beginning professional work in science outreach and communication, I'd like to stay well-versed and abreast of the research. However, upon performing rudimentary searches on these topics, I'm blown away by the number of results.

For instance, a Google Scholar search on "science communication" (in quotes) yields about 298,000 results, and a Mendeley search yields thousands also.

So, any words of wisdom on how to go about this? I'd like to dig in and do my homework over time, but I'm not sure how to work with the obvious limitations. I don't feel I have the benefit of specificity of a topic or previous familiarity with the research due to not being in academia also (to narrow down my concerns). I'm also not satisfied with simply reading popular accounts, as I would like to be able to back up my perspective with research when needed (and ideally in a less ad-hoc fashion).

  • Is your question about how academics deal with such challenges? Jun 4, 2015 at 3:45
  • 6
    It's actually a very relevant question as well for academics who need to understand a new field.
    – Flyto
    Jun 4, 2015 at 6:05
  • 1
    Not a really related, but when I'm looking for professors to follow in a new field, I asked on Reddit in relevant subreddit.
    – Ooker
    Jun 4, 2015 at 14:27
  • Antonio, it's for advice from academics or other related parties on how a non-academic might go about such.
    – Josh
    Jun 4, 2015 at 17:57
  • 1
    The snowball method is always a good one to get an overview of the more relevant papers in any given field that you're not an expert in.
    – ThomasH
    Jun 5, 2015 at 10:50

5 Answers 5


The situation for academics is actually quite similar to that of non-academics, when faced with any discipline where they are not already an expert. In cross-disciplinary interactions, we are all the laypersons for the other disciplines.

I find that when I am trying to learn about a new area, often the first problem is even just to figure out what the right words are to search for. Every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary, and often the words have unexpected meanings.

As such, my approach tends to be as follows:

  1. Start with Wikipedia or textbooks or some other similar popular (but well referenced!) source.
  2. Identify key terms and key sources, and use those to find some good scientific review papers to read.
  3. That will often be enough, since I'm often less interested in bleeding-edge theories or origins than in the current community consensus. If not, however, then the review papers generally give enough context that I can follow references forward and back from the review papers, search key words I learn from those articles, or look for other papers authored by key players.
  • 3
    +1. In many topics wikipedia cites some good review papers, they're also worth a start.
    – Chris H
    Jun 4, 2015 at 12:18
  • There's a lot of exceptional advice here (most of which I upvoted), though I accepted this answer due to acknowledgement of having a sort of cut-off point in a sense. Review papers is also an excellent suggestion, and if anyone knows other repositories that focus on such, I would be interested.
    – Josh
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:11

298,000 search hits indicates a mature field that has attracted significant attention. There should be textbooks, and, yes, repeating the search on Amazon gets hits. Begin with one or two well-reviewed books.

After reading a textbook or two you should have the general outline of the field, and some questions about it. The next step is to pick a sub-area, defined by terminology you learned from the books. Do more focused searches for papers.

The ideal type of publication at this stage is either a survey paper or the "related work" section of a doctoral dissertation. Either will give you references to foundation papers in the subarea of interest. Now look for recent papers referencing those foundation papers, with additional keywords related to your current question. You should get a feel for who is doing, or at least supervising, research that may interest you. Pick out some of the papers for which they are a co-author.

  • Excellent suggestions. My concern with books though is navigating bias. Especially in fields where theories are not as easily empirically differentiated. Even with a good review, I might feel like I'm getting a perspective in line with consensus, but it instead end up being narrow or popular for other reasons.
    – Josh
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:15
  • @Josh Don't treat any book as the last word - for one thing, publication delays ensure that it won't contain the latest information. The books are just to get an overall feel and help find some questions. Jun 4, 2015 at 18:21

+1 to both Alexsandr's and jakebeal's answers, especially jakebeal's recommendation to look at review articles, i.e., articles that review the state of the art in a particular topic, summarizing many individual contributions and articles. Reviews are definitely something to look out for.

Depending on your specific field(s), there may be entire journals set up to publish nothing but reviews. These are the journals you want to find and set up alerts for, as per Aleksandr's answer.

Three things I'd like to add:

  • First, try to attend a conference once in a while if your budget permits. It's a lot easier to figure out who the central people in a field are when you see who is on a conference organizing committee, who is invited for keynote talks, and who generally makes insightful comments at others' presentations. Get their cards, google their names, find out what they do, and follow them as appropriate, by subscribing to blogs or Twitter feeds, friending them on Facebook, or following them on ResearchGate or Academia.edu.

  • Second, develop the art of skimming. You simply won't be able to read everything, even if you restrict yourself to review articles. With any paper, start by reading the abstract. If that does not appear to be useful, don't feel guilty about putting the entire article aside and focusing on a different article that is helpful.

  • However, do also develop the art of not only checking what's immediately relevant, but also what is only tangentially related to your main focus, because this is how you acquire breadth, as opposed to depth. I'll save any article that sounds even vaguely interesting and have made it a habit to at least skim one of those on a daily basis. (Yes, I do need to explicitly track this, because otherwise this daily reading will be crowded out by short-term issues, and I'll never get around to reducing my "unread" pile. YMMV.)

Edit: Regarding my first point, on conferences, @Josh comments that it might be difficult to network one's way into those.

At least in my field, you can simply attend a conference without presenting anything, so there is nothing to stop you from attending. I don't know whether there are conferences that only allow you to attend if you present something, but I would be surprised if such restrictions were common.

Conversely, large conferences will eagerly welcome new attendees. For instance, the American Statistical Association, at their Joint Statistical Meetings, have "docents", long-time attendees that are available to show first-timers how to navigate a convention center full of thousands of statisticians.

I agree that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in finding the right conferences to attend, if you want to attend to get an overview of a field... because looking for an overview by definition means you don't know enough about the field to choose a good conference. You will likely need to do some homework about this.

  • Look for good publications, check which academic societies sponsor those publications, look whether they organize conferences.
  • If you found someone who does good work, see what conferences he or she tweets about attending.
  • In computer science specifically, where most of the science is done via conferences rather than via journals, once you find a good publication, check what conference it was published in, and more importantly, what conferences its references were published in.

The entire "find a good conference to find good researchers to get an overview of a field to find a good conference" loop will likely need a few iterations. But there is positive feedback involved: the more high quality people/journals/conferences you know, the more new high quality people/journals/conferences you will get to know, because your network will gain dynamics and traction!

In fact, I started out in my now current field as a blank slate in 2006, with a completely unrelated Ph.D. and no academic connections to this field whatsoever. So I simply googled around, found some papers, then a journal, then the journal's sponsoring association, then its conference, simply attended this conference in 2006 without knowing anyone whatsoever, chatted up everyone I met, contributed a little to the associated practitioners' publication and pretty soon felt very welcome indeed in this particular community, although I am of course not an academic per se. The approach I propose works.

  • 2
    Thank you for kind words, Stephan. +1 from me to all answers, as they provide partially intersecting, but complementary and useful points. +1 to the OP as well, as this question is a rather important one. Jun 4, 2015 at 7:04
  • Great suggestions and upvoted. I hadn't even thought about conferences. If one is not in academia though, networking one's way into those might be difficult. Any suggestions there?
    – Josh
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:17
  • @Josh: thanks, good comment. I edited my answer to address it. Jun 4, 2015 at 19:35
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    One good way to "use" conferences without actually attending: have a look at the program and the abstract book online - it should give you quite some information on the latest topics and who is working on what. Make sure to have a look at the people to give the keynote.
    – Gerhard
    Jun 6, 2015 at 12:17

Generally, there are no easy solutions to that and the underlying problem, which is usually referred to as information overload. Having said that, I can think of various approaches to the problem that you have described, including the following ones.

  • Mastering the use of keywords and corresponding databases' search engine syntax, when performing direct search of research papers on a specific topic. This approach includes using alerts, which I find as quite an effective tool to fight information overload in academia.

  • Using various citation indices and citation impact indices, with my personal preference being the open (non-commercial) ones, such as Google Scholar, CiteSeerX, RePEc and SSRN (obviously, I mean here indexing and ranking functionality of the corresponding services).

  • Using professional curated sources, in particular, research- and science-focused online portals (including ones, affiliated with major professional societies and research journals), where popular, significant or promising research if often featured.

  • Using, similarly to the above-mentioned curation services, personal curated sources, such as thematic or topical websites, blogs, discipline-focused social media and other online resources.

  • Last, but not least, using the power of professional networking (both online and offline), tailored to your research or professional interests, IMHO promises to increase chances in staying up-to-date on important classical and emerging scientific trends and discoveries.

  • 2
    These are some excellent specific suggestions, and I appreciate listing the sites (and I've upvoted). You mention citation indices which I think holds some interesting options. For instance, should I intentionally search for papers that are cited more than others? Or does this risk a sort of popularity bias?
    – Josh
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:19
  • @Josh: You're very welcome. Thank you for kind words and upvote. In regard to citation and impact indices, I wouldn't consider that approach independently from the others, as doing so increases the risk of missing important, but overlooked, as well as emerging research (I guess, this represents the popularity bias you've mentioned). I think that it is best to use that approach in combination with the other ones, mentioned in my and others' answers. Jun 4, 2015 at 23:35

The answers you have been given are pretty comprehensive, but an additional avenue you might find beneficial is to ask an academic librarian.

Whilst not all are experts on the field (or even have a qualification in that particular area), their profession is to deal with information. As such they might be able to help you navigate resources and construct search queries to refine your result sets.

They are often well placed to suggest resources or databases to help manage your research that you might not be aware of.

Most university libraries are pretty accommodating to visitors (the University I work at allows free access and limited access to some e-resources, with a paid option for borrowing entitlements) especially at this time of year as the exam period draws to a close.

  • The question is concerned about how to deal with large number of research papers in order to stay up-to-date on a topic. This is different from searching literature on a topic, for which your suggestion is valid (but, IMHO, more applicable to students, than researchers, who are expected to know how to perform literature (re)search). Jun 5, 2015 at 13:50
  • Then, perhaps, your suggestion can be used by the OP, assuming that he or she has access to an academic librarian. +1. Jun 8, 2015 at 8:51
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    @aleksandr-blekh Thanks for the +1. Messed up my comment by trying to edit it. Below is the comment I removed so your reply isn't out of context. The question does indeed begin 'How do I deal... ' but the OP then goes on to say: "As someone not in academia but beginning professional work in science outreach and communication, I'd like to stay well-versed and abreast of the research"
    – joesch
    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:06

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