Saturday, April 4, 2009

Keeping On Top of the Literature

With more journals accessible than ever before, drinking from the stream of knowledge is more like chugging from the fire hydrant of information. Jerry Harris lists over 300 journals that publish vertebrate paleontology-relevant content. . .and the number is increasing all the time! With papers ranging from the obscure to the earth-shaking, it's both an overwhelming and important task to keep on top of the literature.

Fortunately, the same resources that create this flood of information also offer some life rafts to stay afloat. In this post, I'll cover a few tips, tricks, and tools that I use to stay "in the know" on paleontology.
  • Journal Subscriptions. If you're a paleontologist (avocational, professional, or otherwise) or paleontological enthusiast, you should be subscribing to one or two of the major journals in the field as part of your professional memberships (e.g., Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Palaeontological Association, Paleontological Society). These will get you the earliest and easiest access to many of the most important articles in the field. Warning: Rant Ahead! Look - if you're seriously interested in paleontology, you need to join one of these societies. Not only do you get to support organizations that are doing good things in the name of paleontology, but you get journal access (print and/or online) as part of the package deal. And, they're really, truly not that expensive. I was a poor student once myself (and am still not what would be considered rich), but let's get real, folks. A student membership for SVP costs only $70 a year. Yes, I know that's real money. . .but it's also not much more than that copy of Halo 3 that you bought, or that history textbook you'll never read, that cable TV subscription you don't need, or the amount you spent on beer (or bottled water, or soda, or coffee, or energy drinks, or whatever your overpriced beverage of choice is) last month. An associate membership in SVP is but $50 (online access to the journal only, but a viable option for those folks who aren't students and/or don't think they will attend one of the annual meetings), and full membership is $140. Seriously - in most cases (and I recognize that there are some exceptions based on personal circumstances - you folks know who you are), there are no excuses for not joining at least one professional society. Start saving your pennies now, because it's an investment in your future as a paleontologist. (ok, my rant is over)
  • Paleontology Mailing Lists. One of the few (in my opinion) remaining uses for the Dinosaur Mailing List is publication alerts posted by some generous members (in particular, Jerry Harris). These alerts often scrape together valuable papers from obscure or hard-to-find journals. The downside with subscribing is that you also get a blizzard of emails on how T. rex could best a pack of Spinosaurus, PDF requests, and the inevitable "that species name isn't spelled correctly" postings.
  • Journal Web Pages. Most journals (at least, journals worth their salt) have web pages with listings of current content. So, you can always just browse on over, and see what this month's articles bring. Of course, this gets really old if there are more than about three journals to keep track of, and it's easy to forget. So, how about trying. . .
  • Journal RSS Feeds. Some journals, such as Palaeontology, have RSS feeds available. These can be really handy, but again overwhelming if you really want to check on a whole host of journals. So, this brings us to. . .
  • Journal Content Alerts. This is my personal favorite method for keeping updated on the latest and greatest papers. Many publishers and journal bundlers (including Wiley, Evilsevier, BioOne, PLoS, and others) allow you to sign up for free content alerts. So, when a new issue is published, you get a little email with a listing of every article in there. It's kinda like the old-fashioned technique of going to the journal stacks and thumbing through all of the recent issues, except you can do it in your pajamas without funny looks from librarians. As an added bonus, you often can set up searches for alerts whenever a topic of interest, like "dinosaur," shows up in any journal across the publisher's collection. This sometimes results in irrelevant papers (childhood education articles come up frequently), but it also might get you interesting hits from journals that you might not follow otherwise (e.g., respiratory physiology). I've set up a dedicated email account (thanks, Gmail!) just for this purpose.
So, it's easier than ever to be up-to-date on happenings in the journals. And, it isn't always impossible to get copies of these papers, either. The better you know the literature, the better your research will be!


Zachary Miller said...

I've been putting off a subscription to JVP because I find it difficult to justify the price tag (I'm not a student) for a quarterly journal. However, the trip to this year's SVP isn't as hopeless as I'd once thought, so if and when I sign back up, I may as well join the society and get the journal.

When I signed up last year, it was the "one time only" thing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, Andy! I, personally, needed those, but with my busy schedule, I wouldn't have time to read them.