Research hacks #12: Seven ways of keeping up to date with developments in your field

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Whether we like it or not, research trends dictate to a significant extent what is published and read in most fields. It’s all part of the room of conversations that I described in a previous post in this series. In order to draw readers to your work and contribute to a conversation that others are going to be interested in, you need to know what is currently hot in your field, what is up-and-coming, and what has exhausted itself, at least for the time being. This is also useful knowledge for current or future graduate students; it will help you to get a sense of how to position your doctoral project, how to talk about it in job applications, and how to frame your future articles.

Seven ways to stay on top of developments in your research area

So how can you stay up to date with what is happening in your field? Here are seven ways of keeping up with the Dr. Jones’s.

1. Email lists

Even though they are a tad old-school now, an email listserve can be a great way of receiving calls for papers and conference announcements, news of new publications, deaths (!) and other important information in your field. For my research Francofil, Philos-L, and A-Phil are among the main lists. If you are not sure what the key lists are in your area, why not ask around and see what updates your friends, supervisors or colleagues receive?

2. Google Scholar email alerts

Google scholar alerts are fantastic for funnelling targeted information about specific research interests to your email inbox. For example, a while ago I set up a Google Scholar alert for “Michel Serres”. I receive a digest about three times a week of every new book published and searchable on Google Books that mentions Serres anywhere in the text, and every new academic article published and catalogued on Google Scholar that mentions Serres. It gives the title of the item, a direct link, and usually a couple of lines from the text, including a mention of Serres. Here’s the 28 March digest.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

3. Google email alerts

Unlike the targeted Google Scholar alerts, Google alerts trawl the entire wild wild web for your chosen search string. You can set up one or multiple alerts, and the service gives you the option to receive comprehensive results (which can sometimes be overwhelming, depending on the search string) or just the links that Google thinks are most important. I have a number of these alerts set up for prominent figures in French thought, so that every time someone mentions—for example—Catherine Malabou in a blog post, I get to hear about it.

As well as setting up alerts for key people/concepts you want to keep across, I recommend you set up an email alert for your own name. Yes, really. No, it isn’t vain. Or, more precisely, it’s only vain if you use it in a vain way. An alert for your own name can tip you off when reviews of your books appear online or when people mention you in blog conversations. You then have the opportunity to join in the conversation, clip and save the review, or just pass on unnoticed. If you don’t know which conversations you’re cropping up in then you don’t have the option to decide whether you want to get involved or not.

4. Feedblitz

I’ve been using Feedblitz for over a decade and love it. It can aggregate any site with an RSS or XML feed and deliver a digest of new material to your email inbox daily. That means no more trawling round multiple sites looking for new posts or updates: everything comes packaged in one neat email. I use Feedblitz to inform me of news stories from the THE, TLS, LRB and NYRB, as well as new reviews on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, new entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and new episodes of, for example, Les Chemins de la Philosophie (xml) on France Culture. I also have it set up to send me new posts from a small number of key blogs in my field and related areas (including the ever-insightful—and entertaining—Progressive Geographies blog maintained by Stuart Elden).

5. Twitter (if used wisely)

I’ve never ridden in a rodeo, but if I ever do I imagine it will feel like trying to stay on top of my Twitter feed. I get the feeling that Twitter is increasingly becoming one of—if not the?—primary mode of communication and dissemination for may outlets. Journals tweet. University departments and centres tweet. Conferences tweet. Individuals tweet. Organisations tweet. If you’re not using Twitter, I think you’re missing out. But there’s a caveat: the only way to make Twitter a useful tool for keeping on top of developments in your field (instead of using it as a tool for endless procrastination and largely tangential or irrelevant distractions) is to tame it. I have found two ways to do this that work for me, and I’m sure there are more out there.

5a) TweetDeck

Once you are on Twitter and following a decent number of relevant people (the recommendation is more than 100), get yourself a free TweetDeck account. It works like a search engine and aggregator for Twitter. You can view multiple columns of tweets at once, each column representing either the latest tweets for a particular search term, one of your Twitter lists, or your latest twitter notifications. Once you’e told TweetDeck how to populate the columns they’ll be waiting for you and ready to go whenever you log on.

Here’s what the first few columns of my TweetDeck account look like at the time of writing this post:

5b) Nuzzel

Fed up of trawling through your Twitter feed to find the important news and links? Want a daily digest of the articles and ideas that are being “shared” and “liked” the most among your Twitter friends (institutions, organisations, individuals) today? Want to get wind of news as it bubbles up and before it breaks in the mainstream media? No, then move on to the next point and don’t worry about it. Yes? Then get yourself on Nuzzel. It collates the most important events from your twitter feed and puts them all on one page for you. If you follow a range of accounts in your academic area, this becomes a powerful tool. Its strengths are picking up on ephemeral news and comment that affects your research community, and it’s great for keeping up with conferences too. You can view the digest directly on the Nuzzel site or have daily emails sent to your inbox.

6. Zetoc

Before moving to Australia I used to have a range of Zetoc alerts hitting my inbox every week. Zetoc indexes “over 30,000 journals and more than 52 million article citations and conference papers through the British Library’s electronic table of contents”, and can send you email keyword alerts as well as the table of contents pages for the latest editions of specific journals. I’ve replaced this with Google Scholar alerts in my own inbox, but I mention Zetoc as an alternative. Let me know in the comments below if you think I’m making a mistake.

7. Go to conferences and seminars with a wider vision than presenting your own paper and listening to other people’s

All of the means of keeping up to date I have mentioned so far are electronic. Email lists and twitter feeds have their advantages, to be sure, but also their weaknesses. To begin with, it’s almost all one-way traffic: you are receiving lots of information but no-one knows who you are or what you are doing. You rarely get the opportunity to explore or question the information you receive with those who wrote it. So it’s wise not to rely on electronic means alone. Alongside a web- and email-based strategy you need face-to-face gatherings in order to keep up with news and trends in your field. The obvious events where this can take place are seminars and conferences.

A conference is not just a place for people to hear your paper. In fact, the attendance at the parallel sessions of most conferences is decidedly underwhelming, and if your sole aim is for people to hear your paper then you may be sorely disappointed. Happily, though, that’s not the whole ball game. A conference is also about all the intangibles that happen on the edges of the presentations: the conversations you drift into over coffee, the questions you hear other people ask, the concerns raised over dinner, the publishers who have stalls and who you can get to know. Conferences are for gathering news as well as disseminating research. It’s not just about the papers; it’s also, to quote Denis Denuto in The Castle, about tuning in to the “vibe” of your discipline. What are people arguing about? What new topics are being discussed? What (by implication) is no-one interested in? So go ahead and talk to people you don’t know. Ask them what they do. Find out what’s going on beyond your existing interests. The bigger the conference—or the more of them you attend—the better sense you will have of what is hot in the discipline at a given moment, and what is likely to be in the future.
So that’s my array of tools for keeping up to date. I’m sure there’s more out there. What do you use?
CC Image courtesy of James Marvin Phelps on Flickr.

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