Jabberwocky Ecology

Why you should use a feed reader to monitor journal table of contents

A couple of weeks ago we made it possible for folks to subscribe to JE using email. We did this because we realized that many scientists, even those who are otherwise computationally savvy, really haven’t embraced feed readers as a method of tracking information. When I wrote that post I promised to return with an argument for why you should start using a feed reader instead – so here it is. If anyone is interested in a more instructional post about how to do this then let us know in the comments.

The main argument

I’m going to base my argument on something that pretty much all practicing scientists do – keeping track of the current scientific literature by reading Tables of Contents (TOCs). Back in the dark ages the only way to get these TOCs was to either have a personal subscription to the journal or to leave the office and walk the two blocks to the library (I wonder if anyone has done a study on scientists getting fatter now that they don’t have to go to the library anymore). About a decade ago (I’m not really sure when, but this seems like it’s in the right ballpark) journals started offering email subscriptions to their TOCs. Every time a new issue was published you’d receive an email that included the titles and authors of each contribution and links to the papers (once the journal actually had the papers online of course). This made it much easier to keep track of the papers being published in a wide variety of journals by speeding up the process of determining if there was anything of interest in a given issue. While the increase in convenience of using a feed reader may not be on quite the same scale as that generated by the email TOCs, it is still fairly substantial.

The nice thing about feed readers is that they operate one item at a time. So, instead of receiving one email with 10-100 articles in it, you receive 10-100 items in your feed reader. This leads to the largest single advantage of feeds over email for tracking TOCs. You only need to process one article at a time. Just think about the last time you had 5 minutes before lunch and you decided to try to clear an email or two out of your inbox. You probably opened up a TOC email and started going through it top to bottom. If you were really lucky then maybe there were only a dozen papers and none of them were of interest and you could finish going through the email and delete it. Most of the time however there are either too many articles or you want to look at at least one so you go to the website, read the abstract, maybe download the paper, and the next thing you know it’s time for lunch and you haven’t finished going through the table so it continues to sit in your inbox. Then, of course, by the time you get back to it you probably don’t even remember where you left off and you basically have to start back at the beginning again. I don’t know about you but this process typically resulted in my having dozens of emailed TOCs lying around my inbox at any one time.

With a feed reader it’s totally different. If you have five minutes you start going through the posts for individual articles one at a time. If you have five minutes you can often clear out 5 or 10 articles (or even 50 if the feed is well tagged like PNAS’s feed), which means that you can use your small chunks of free time much more effectively for keeping up with the literature. In addition, all major feed readers allow you to ‘star’ posts – in other words you can mark them in such a way that you can go back to them later and look at them in more detail. So, instead of the old system where if you were interested in looking at a paper you had to stop going through the table of contents, go to the website, decide from the abstract if you wanted to actually look at the paper, and then either download or print a copy of the paper to look at later, with a feed reader you achieve the same thing with a one second click. This means that you can often go through a fairly large TOCs in less than 10 minutes.

Of course much of this utility depends on the journals actually providing feeds that include all of the relevent information.

Other benefits

Keeping your TOCs and other feeds outside of your email allows for greater separation of different aspects of online communication. If you monitor your email fairly continuously, the last thing you need is to receive multiple TOC emails each day that could distract you from actually getting work done. Having a separate feed reader let’s you actually decide when you want to look at this information (like in those 5 minutes gaps before lunch or at the end of the day when you’re too brain dead to do anything else).

Now that journals post many of their articles online as soon as the proofs stage is complete, it can be advantageous to know about these articles as soon as they are available. Most journal feeds do exactly this, posting a few papers at a time as they are uploaded to the online-early site.

Sharing – want to tell your friends about a cool paper you just read. You could copy the link, open a new email, paste the link and then send it on to them. Or, you could accomplish this with a single click (NB: this technology is still developing and varies among feed readers).

And then of course there are blogs

I’ve attempted to appeal to our non-feedreader-readers by focusing on a topic that they can clearly identify with. That said, the world of academic communication is rapidly expanding beyond the walls of the journal article. Blogs play an increasingly important role in scientific discourse and if you’re going to follow blogs you really need a feed reader. Why? Because while some blogs update daily (e.g., most of the blogs over at ScienceBlogs) many good blogs update at an average rate of once a week, or once a month. You don’t want to have to check the webpage of one of these blogs every day just to see if something new has been posted, so subscribe to its feed, kick back, and let the computer tell you what’s going on in the world.

A message to journal editors/managers about RSS feeds

  1. If you don’t have an easily accessible RSS feed available (and by easily accessible I mean in the browser’s address bar on your journal’s main page) for your journal’s Table of Contents (TOCs), there is a certain class of readers who will not keep track of you TOCs. This is because receiving this information via email is outdated and inefficient and if you are in the business of content delivery it is, at this point, incompetent for you to not have this option (it’s kind of like not having a website 10 years ago).
  2. If, for some technophobic reason, you refuse to have an RSS feed, then please, pretty please with suger on top, don’t hide the ability to subscribe to the TOCs behind a username/password wall. All you need is a box for people to add their email addresses to for subscribing and a prominent unsubscribe link in the emails (if you are really paranoid you can add a confirmation email with a link that needs to be followed to confirm the subscription).
  3. Most importantly. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, DO NOT START AN RSS FEED AND THEN STOP UPDATING IT. Those individuals who track a large number of feeds in their feed readers will not notice that you stopped updating your feed for quite some time. You are losing readers when you do this.
  4. If you have an RSS feed that is easily accessible (congratulations, you’re ahead of many Elsevier journals) please try to maximize the amount of information it provides. There are three critical pieces of information that should be included in every TOCs feed:
    1. The title (you all manage to do this one OK)
    2. All of the authors’ names. Not just the first author. Not just the first and last author. All of the authors. Seriously, part of the decision making process when it comes to choosing whether or not to take a closer look at a paper is who the authors are. So, if you want to maximize the readership of papers, include all of the authors’ names in the RSS feed.
    3. The abstract. I cannot fathom why you would exclude the abstract from your feed, other than to generate click throughs to your website. Since those of you doing this (yes, Ecology, I’m talking about you) aren’t running advertising, this isn’t a good reason, since you can communicate the information just as well in the feed (and if you’re using website visits as some kind of metric, don’t worry, you can easily track how many people are subscribed to your feed as well).

If this seems a bit harsh, whiny, etc., then keep this in mind. In the last month I had over 1000 new publications come through my feed reader and another 100 or so in email tables of contents. This is an incredible amount of material just to process, let alone read. If journals want readers to pay attention to their papers it is incumbent upon them to make it as easy as possible to sort through this deluge of information and allow their readership to quickly and easily identify papers of interest. Journals that don’t do this are hurting themselves as well as their readers.

A quote and some random thoughts on plagarism

During the course of this long volume I have undoubtedly plagiarized from many sources–to use the ugly term that did not bother Shakespeare’s age. I doubt whether any criticism or cultural history has ever been written without such plagiary, which inevitably results from assimilating the contributions of your countless fellow-workers, past and present. The true function of scholarship as a society is not to stake out claims on which others must not trespass, but to provide a community of knowledge in which others may share.

-F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance 1941.

Thanks to academhack for pointing me to this great quote. Given the spirit of the quote I don’t think he’ll mind me reposting it. I find this to be a particularly relevant in light of recent discussion about tracking down self-plagarism and how grave an offense it may be. I’m not saying that self, and regular, plagarism aren’t serious issues. I’ve been involved in reporting a case of self-plagarism myself and it’s disturbing when you see it. It’s also clearly bad for science. It clutters the already crowded literature, has a negative influence on broader perceptions regarding the ethics of scientists, and results in undue credit (which presumably influences funding and promotion). That said, I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. We are, after all, in the business of ideas. Words are important for communicating those ideas, but the ideas themselves are the currency of interest. Our ideas are influenced by everyone we talk to, colored by every paper we’ve ever read and talk we’ve ever seen. The goal of science is (or at least should be) to progress our knowledge as rapidly as possible. I think that conversations surrounding plagarism, and what it means in this new era, should start from this core goal and proceed from there.

Amen brothers: why stimulus funding for science was a good idea

We just read this great piece from the Huffington Post by Todd Palmer and Rob Pringle on why including funds for NSF and NIH in the stimulus bill was a good idea (thanks to Ecotone for pointing us to the article). The great thing about the piece is that it doesn’t just make a cogent argument for the stimulus funds, but for why funding basic science is economically beneficial in general. Probably the high point of the article was this little gem:

Truthfully, the return on our relatively modest investment in basic research over the last half-century is so astronomical that it’s impossible to calculate. Science hasn’t just stimulated the economy; it has revolutionized the economy, and our lives along with it.

which seems like it must be hyperbole, but at least from our perspective it certainly is not. However, if we had to pick our favorite moment in the article it would definitely be the paraphrase of Paul Baskin’s concern about the utility of this funding:

Aren’t we just subsidizing a bunch of nerds who already have cushy academic jobs and buy fancy Japanese-made instruments? No.

This is definitely one of the clearest, best, and funniest explanations of why funding basic science is critical to the economy and to society in general. Go check it out.