No it’s not another earthquake here in Canberra, it’s just a cheap trick to get your attention. But now that you are here, I’d like to mention one of the many challenging aspects of research: keeping on top of the literature. There_is_so_much_information_out_there. Researchers are expected to know of the new techniques, the new discoveries, the conflicts, and the proven (or now disproven) ideas in their discipline. This is no trivial exercise and is made only a fraction easier by the ‘alerts’ that academic journals kindly deliver to your inbox.
While the saying normally reads that ‘no man is an island’, neither is a research area. There is an ever-increasing tendency toward ‘interdisciplinary’ research, and while the scientist in me agrees that this is a much more holistic approach to solving a problem, my inbox groans under the weight of ‘alerts’ that keep me up to date in multiple disciplines. As a researcher that uses deep-sea corals as archives of climate change I am trying to keep up with our understanding of coral biochemistry, the global nitrogen cycle and food web dynamics, climate forcing both past and present, and more specifically, the physical, chemical, and biological oceanography of the East Australian Current and Southern Ocean. What else can you expect if you study marine bio-geo-chemistry? At present I receive weekly alerts from maybe 6 journals, and then another couple from monthly and quarterly publications. While this goes a long way to keeping me informed, there are probably another twenty journals I should keep my eyes on. And so to the next kind of alert, the citation alert.
Citation alerts are generated by databases like ‘Web of Science’. I have a number of articles that are so specific to my research that if anyone else is citing them then I should probably be reading their article too. Whenever something new appears that has cited these articles, the Web of Science kindly sends me a message to remind me I am not keeping up with the current literature. Choosing the right article takes practice for some i.e me. If you choose something a little too broad you end up being alerted about the latest in compound specific isotopic analysis of urine in sports doping (possibly not the best use of my reading time), or the isotopic signature of silicon in bananas (what?).
But moreover, no man is an island. Recently our research group established a shared file that outlines each member’s research interests and folders for around 20 journals. We have been assigned a number of journals each, and we look for relevant articles for the entire group. Many eyes make light work, right? This idea particularly appeals to me for two reasons. Firstly, it fosters a sense of team work as we all attempt to keep abreast of what is new. Independent research can be quite isolating and being part of a cohesive group is incredibly important, especially in the formative years. It also means that we all have a better chance of keeping up with the literature in the broadest sense. Afterall, every well-rounded scientist should know about silicon isotopes in bananas….