How do Scientists Keep Informed in their Fields?

I recently learned that people have many different ways of staying updated on the progress in their respective fields. The major way scientists stay updated on the field is publications within a given field. However, with the number of publications being so high, it is completely unreasonable for someone to read everything that gets published, and certainly not every paper in full. So how do people stay updated in that case?

Journals:

Let’s first discuss journals in a bit more details as the primary method for information transfer. What tends to happen is early in your research career you have to learn a lot. So this makes you consume a lot of material early on in your research career, for me this was about 20% of papers I chose to open. As you consume material and perform research yourself, you start to figure out where relevant papers are published, whose papers you should read and how to find those papers, so this cuts the number of papers you read in half. Eventually, as you become very comfortable with your field and understand how people do things, you basically end up not having to read any full papers. Just by reading the abstract, conclusion and viewing the figures/tables you can get a strong idea of what the paper is showing. Only in the rare circumstance of something being exceptionally interesting/relevant/confusing does one read a paper start to finish at this juncture in your career. So basically your ‘reading’ and ‘understanding’ graphs look like this (x-axis is years):

graph of journals reading
While the numbers may change field to field the trend does not, because independent of your field, you learn more and pick up on things more quickly. So the information to time ration increases dramatically.

Conferences:

The ‘top’ researchers in any field essentially use conferences as a way to keep updated on progress that is unpublished or simply missed despite best efforts to read new material. In all cases, conferences enable you to listen to researchers present condensed versions of their work. In many cases, there is also time to network and interact with people in your field. There is no good replacement to this process of personal interaction to stay updated on progress.

So despite people’s belief that journals are the mechanism of information transfer in the sciences; this does not happen in all cases, and certainly is not the way top researchers get information.  It is by direct communication with their peers that the most valuable information is transferred. Knowing this, it gives us something to consider when we think about journals.

  • Are they still a relevant method for communicating science?
  • What are other ways we could more efficiently communicate scientific advances to our peers?

As always I welcome comments on ideas around this topic!

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