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As an academic researcher involved in a field with lots of academic publications, I find it hard to keep with these constant stream of publications. Even if my field is already specialized, there are way too much publications to read them all.

Any useful techniques to (a) filter out the good ones, and/or (b) quickly decide whether a paper is worth my time?

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Wouldn't it make sense to move this question to academia.stackexchange.com ? –  Rabarberski Oct 24 '12 at 15:22

6 Answers 6

There are imo 5 things one has to differ concerning paper managment:

  1. Redundancy
    • because of plagiarism in distinct scientific branches there is the possibility you waste time reading the same informatin in different papers several times (bigger problem in humanities than natural sciences)
    • focus on some tools like zotero, citeulike, mendeley, scirate that dont overlap in functions and output and thereby create even more redundancy to you.
  2. Staying up to date
    • normally solvable by reading the current articles in a top magazine like nature or science
    • with social research tools like citeulike you can follow single researchers with same or similar research topics and trace what papers they read and share information. If you are beginner in a new branch, following a experienced professional is always a good choice.
    • some scientific branches and online journal sites offer different services, study them. For physics arxiv there is for example the social service scirate for rating newest papers with important infos. Search engines (e.g. ISI - Webofknowledge) for scientific publications sometimes offer distinct alert services.
  3. Filter out information you are actively seeking for
    • Nobody will actually do research on exact the same topic/question like you (normal case for a PhD). So some information filtering you still have to do on your own. Otherwise you may miss valuable infos and news.
    • best way to do this currently is in my opition saving your search queries/keywords or simply create an google scholar alert by hitting the "create alert". New papers matching your query will be sent to your mailbox. Save papers you already read in zotero, rate & tag them, so you dont read them twice.
  4. Getting aware of information that might be interesting to you (Relevance Paradox)
    • The disadvantage of following other researcher is that your information is basically 2nd hand and average, not every top-notch scientist wants to share his newest secrets or best spotted papers. So of course use the tools listed above, but still keep searching yourself a bit (otherwise any of above social services wouldnt work well - give & get), groups often work on slightly different topics. Most of these social services mainly reduce redundancy and filter out new of old/already known information, but not necessarily highly important & interesting information to you
  5. Get information before/as fast as your competitors
    • e.g. Overfly a few very special & up to date small journals on your research topic. Or at least check the rss feeds of those journals for some interesting article titles yourself, if something might be interesting concerning your topic.

Following these rules of thumb you should be able to reduce information overload and still gather important and new infos for your research. When to little to move forward with your research you can still raise your reading time step by step. Often the best secrets & ideas you get anyway from your group mates working on slightly diff. topics, not from papers ;)

These links gives some further good starting points for citation/literature managing


Besides this only few seem to be aware of the search operators AROUND(X) and ~ on google. Tilde(~) in front of a search word also searches for synonymical terms. AROUND(X) searches for sources with only X words between two search terms. I use it especially for finding research papers concerning my own very specific questions/topic. For example:

brain AROUND(4) chimpanzee neuroscience evolution

should give out only sources where brain and chimpanzee are separated by not mor than 4 words. This way you can highly improve the correct context of information you are actually seeking for, while without the AROUND operator you get a lot more papers containing these frequent keywords only in intro/abstract.

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very nice overview! –  Rabarberski Jul 28 '11 at 6:50

I have found this paper about the "three pass approach" very helpful.

A summary:

  • First pass (about 10 minutes):
    • carefully read title, abstract and introduction
    • read (sub)section headings
    • read the conclusion
    • glance over the references
  • Second pass (about an hour)
    • read more carefully (ignoring details such as proofs)
    • look carefully at figures and diagrams
    • mark relevant references for further reading
  • Third pass (up to four or five hours for beginners)
    • virtually re-implement the paper
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I did one pass on that paper, it was pretty useful. –  Bryan Ward Jul 27 '11 at 21:09
Indeed, a very clear paper. The advice to consider that most reviewers (and readers) will likely only do a first pass, and thus requires the writer to make sure the first pass elements are optimised (section titles, etc.), makes sense as well. –  Rabarberski Jul 28 '11 at 7:06
good answer but more on "how to to read and analyse a paper" imho. Deserves a own question and likely gets a healty discussion here and many answers, there will anyway come more science tagged ones... But i thought @Rabarberski wants to know how he can filter out papers useful to him. These steps he should take when he knows a paper is strongly related to his research and was read/rated by many other researchers in the field. –  Hauser Jul 28 '11 at 11:59
@Hauser: I think my question convers both aspects. Both finding papers and then quickly deciding (by e.g. reading them as proposed in this answer) is part of dealing with paper overload. –  Rabarberski Jul 28 '11 at 12:01
@Rabar you find many guides on "how to read a paper" with google. Here the anwers should imo concentrate on how you filter information and reduce redundancy, big question on its own due to plagiarism. I would recommend a 2nd question for fast fast paper analysing, worst case you get even more, more detailed answers and more rep for a good question ;) we need anyway more questions here –  Hauser Jul 28 '11 at 12:23

Recommendations. Either by a digg-like site featuring rating and sharing or by someone else working in the same area of expertise as you, getting recommendations can save the time you'd spend browsing through a list of papers' descriptions. I'm not sure if the first option exists I've been looking for it in the last few days and this answer will be updated should I find anything good.

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i know only of scirate.com for physics arxiv.org. Actually scientifi community has a recommendation system - peer review - peers will only accept good and new information, so reading the top 5 peer-reviewed journals works. For not peer-reviewed repositories like arxiv scirate.com is indeed nice. But if you can list rating services for other branches besides physics it would be very fine! I did a quick search, didnt found much :( –  Hauser Jul 28 '11 at 12:15

Many people just skim the paper and read the conclusion first to have an overall idea about the value of the paper.

Learning speed reading can also help :)

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Outsource prescreening using freelancer.com or similar. Someone with PHD in India or Philippines will do this for you once a month for 100 USD . It is realistic to find high quality collaboration using this approach.

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It might be useful to point out that since a few months Google Scholar now has a feature called "Scholar Updates", listing recent papers relevant to your research. It does so based on your google scholar profile (which is thus a requirement).

The suggested papers are indeed surprisingly well selected.

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