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Scientific literature overload: Tips for staying on top

Researchers and clinicians use a variety of tactics to keep up with research in their field. A few share their tips here.

It can be difficult to find the time, but Thomas LaRocca, MD, PhD, devotes a couple of hours a week to reading the latest research in his field. As a fellow in pediatric critical care, he recognizes that it’s part of the job.

“Keeping up with the literature is very important in our line of work because our patients have very complex diseases and situations,” he said. “We need to stay up to date on the leading treatments and guidelines. They can change so quickly.”

Today’s researchers and clinicians are faced with a barrage of scientific journal publications. According to a quick search of the Dimensions database, most publications belong to the clinical sciences, followed by biochemistry/cell biology and public health/health services. In biomedicine, biochemistry/cell biology, genetics and neuroscience are the top three published topics.

John Ioannidis, MD, co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, said in an email that the number of biomedical research papers published annually is increasing at a rate of about 5 percent each year. That means that in 2018 there will be about 1.4 million new papers indexed in PubMed and in 2019 there will be about 1.47 million new papers.

“There are a number of tools available, but there is no ‘right’ way to keep up with the literature; it’s up to you how you digest it,” said Christopher Stave, an information services librarian at Lane Medical Library. “If you use too many of these tools, you’re going to be paralyzed, feeling like you have a firehose pointed at your face.”

Stave offers classes to guide students, clinicians and researchers through the tools available at Stanford and to help them develop strategies that will work for them. It’s very subjective, he said, and sometimes less is more: “Often, it’s easier to track more information using one or two tools rather than several,” he said, “but it really depends on each person’s goals.”

As a postdoctoral scholar in molecular and cellular physiology, Xiang Zhao, PhD, said he spends about half of his time combing and reading the scientific literature. “If I’m not running experiments, I’m reading,” he said. “The more you read, the better you understand the field, what has been tried before and the problems that need to be solved.”

Zhao’s strategies includes going directly to select journal websites for the latest articles, and conducting searches in PubMed for deeper dives.

Stave suggests signing up for tables of contents to be delivered by email, or eTOCS, from your favorite journals. Also, a good strategy is to save search results in PubMed, Scopus or Web of Science to get regular email updates when something new is published in the topic you’re interested in. But don’t sign up for more than a few eTOCS or search results, or you’ll end up with a mailbox full of alerts that you never read, he said.

LaRocca uses PubMed as well, and takes advantage of tools designed specifically to help clinicians — like UptoDate.com. He also draws on specialized resources including Stanford's LearnPICU and society websites like the Society for Critical Care Medicine. “I really enjoy the reading, and I love that I’m constantly learning,” LaRocca said.

Some clinicians also use communal assessment search sites, where articles are evaluated and commented on by user experts, Stave said. “It’s helpful to get feedback on an article, and you’re getting some explanation of why you’re getting that particular reference,” said Stave. Options include the Faculty of 1000 and Journal Watch from the New England Journal of Medicine.

“There’s always going to be something that you’re going to miss — there’s just too much information and it’s constantly changing,” LaRocca said. “That’s why we work in teams,” he said. “We trust that if one of us misses something, someone else will pick it up.”

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