Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What is my information diet?

Like most scientists I don't think I have a very balanced or healthy or disciplined diet. It has changed over the years, both with seniority and the internet.

I tend not to work on highly fashionable topics and so don't feel I have to look at the arXiv each day or the Table of Contents of journals. I hope (and expect) that postdocs or collaborators will bring to my attention particularly noteworthy recent papers or articles. I greatly appreciate it when they do. Colleagues also kindly send me some their recent work that they think may be of interest. I appreciate this and unlike some do not begrudge it as shameless self-promotion. On the other hand I don't appreciate being sent stuff which is of marginal or no relevance.

A lot of stuff I need I find with Google Scholar using carefully chosen word searches.

About 15 years ago, I believe I once heard Doug Stone claim that one thing he learnt from Patrick Lee was that he did not need to keep up with journals. Why? If there was some new important development he needed to know about someone would come through his office door and tell him about it.
I don't rate myself in this class. But it is an insight into how some high-profile people operate.

I only go to a couple of conferences per year. I also visit a few departments each year and talk with colleagues individually about what they are working on. These are a good way to catch up.

What is a balanced diet?
I am not sure.
One has to balance Nature/Science and PRL and PRB and others.
One also has to balance theory and experiment.
Furthermore, some of us have to balance chemistry and physics.
One also has to balance papers of broad interest, reviews, foundational references, and latest results.

In general I spend too much time downloading, printing and not reading. I also probably read too much chemistry and experiment, rather than theory. On the other hand, some of my past main successes have been built on that focus.
I also probably read too many papers superficially rather than properly understanding a few.

For the last year, I have been getting the weekly update from Science. But, the main reason is not to find out which condensed matter physics group got a paper in! Rather, I try to read some of the summaries of the biology, ecology, climate change, geology, chemistry, and psychology papers. I usually struggle to understand but it is a nice intellectual challenge. I hope to learn just a couple of basic things...

I thank Ted Sanders for suggesting this post.
If it seems a bit rambling it is because I don't really have a handle on this issue.

I welcome suggestions and ideas, from both junior and senior people, on how they manage this problem.


  1. I keep my reading scope broad when it comes to new publications. It takes some time to sift through the journal RSS feeds, but I like staying social and being the person to email colleagues/labmates/friends with a paper as soon as I see some keywords or topics relevant to their research.

    On that note, there's a nice historical recap in Nature Chemistry on hydrogen bonding today: http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v4/n11/full/nchem.1482.html

  2. Hi, nice post. I have been wondering about this topic, so thanks for sharing. I will certainly be subscribing to your blog.hgh

  3. Actually the google scholar recommendations seem to be quite useful - found several papers in the journals I don't generally browse.

  4. Very useful post. I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I've found that well-phrased Google Scholar Alerts are a great tool to keep track of specific topics, much more efficient than sifting through RSS feeds of individual journals.