When I started my Masters thesis one advice I got for getting good material to read was to subscribe to several journals' alerts system, so that I would get mails with eTOC (electronic Table of Contents).

This was pretty cool then, for months I could stay on top of what's been published out there and was up to date in my own little narrow area. Now almost 3 years later that list of journals have expanded a bit, and the more work I have at the lab more mails that accumulate in my mailbox. What used to be no more than 10 unread mails is now about 900. The output is more than I can handle, what more restrictive method can I implement?

I guess it is pretty clear that this way of following literature is not sustainable in the long run. So I wonder if there are other and perhaps better ways of staying on top of recently published articles?

Please note that I have checked the following two questions prior to asking this one. I do feel though my question differs from these two in its essence.


2 Answers 2


During my PhD, I subscribed to the RSS feeds of the journals I would regularly read (started with 6 of them, ended up with a dozen). I would skim through titles of all new articles, and read abstracts of those whose title drew my eye. I then found out that some journals (J. Chem. Phys. in that particular case) offer specific RSS feeds for each of their sections, in addition to the “whole journal” feed. That helped reducing the number of journals I was skimming through.

Now, after the end of my PhD, my research interest are broader, the number of journals I like to watch is larger but my time is more limited. This system didn't work anymore, and I set up a new system, which has worked well for a few years. I use bibliographic databases (SciFinder and Web of Science; but I'm sure Google Scholar and PubMed have the same features) to create publication and citation alerts. Here's what I have set:

  • Citation alerts for all my own papers: if someöne cites my work, there's a good chance I'll be interested in their paper. This one has two additional “strategic” bonuses: you get to keep an eye on your competition, and you can suggest newer work to other authors when relevant (“hi there, I saw your recent paper citing my 2008 article on X, I thought you might be interested on a new extension of this algorithm that we published this year”).

  • Publication alerts for major players in the field of interest: I have 10 to 20 of those, watching all papers these people publish.

  • Citation alerts for some seminal or high-impact papers by others in the field: a good way to see how a new idea is adopted/improved by the community. Those tend to trigger a massive number of cites, so you may want to get rid of them after some time. I have between 5 and 10 of those alerts at a given time.

The only drawback to this method: database updates tend to lag somewhat behind the RSS feeds of the journals themselves, so you get papers that are 2 to 8 weeks old.

In addition, use conferences to stay on top/catch up with the literature:

  • Look at contributions made, see what's new and go check the relevant recent publications.

  • Even if you're not at the conference, look at the online program and see what looks new.

  • If you're attending, talk with people… you can also use that opportunity to ask some people (whom you do know well enough):

    Have you seen that new technique by the team at MIT? it seems to work really well… I was wondering: what has caught your eye in the recent literature?


I subscribed to the math arXiv, i.e. I signed up to be sent an email every day about the articles posted to the math arXiv (the email contains titles and abstracts).

When I first did this, I got very excited and subscribed to lots of areas that were interesting to me - geometric topology, general topology, algebraic topology, group theory, etc etc. and I swiftly got completely swamped and ended up reading nothing. I decided that this wasn't getting me anywhere, and I unsubscribed from everything except one subtopic (geometric topology) which was most relevant to me.

I also made it a part of my morning schedule to go through the arxiv email (usually sent around 5a) - wake up, read my morning webcomics, go through the arxiv emails, make a note of anything that sounds relevant to me to read later in the office.

In summary then:

  1. Subscribing to the arxiv instead of a journal gives me a manageably small list of articles per day (as opposed to a long list of articles on a more spaced-out schedule)
  2. ArXiv allowed me to focus in on a small field of research - this might not be possible for journals, since they potentially include articles in a range of subject matter.
  3. Making it a part of my daily schedule (particularly for a time when I'm potentially procrastinating from making the bikeride to school) made me more likely to actually do it.
  4. At least in mathematics, it might take quite a bit of time for a paper to make it to the publishing stage, and reading the arXiv lets me be more up to date.
  • Thanks for the answer. I was not familiar with arXiv, will check it more thoroughly, but conceptually speaking I see two potential pitfalls: 1) it appears to be pretty narrow in terms of fields, 2) I don't see how it's different from getting eTOCs
    – posdef
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 11:57

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