Year for Productivity Session 15: Current Awareness – or, Keeping Up with the Einsteins

year_productivity_graphic_15Those doing academic research for publication not only have to be aware of past publications in their field, they need to know what is being published now.  They need tools for current awareness.  One can do this by searching the appropriate databases every time that database is updated, of course.   Doing so requires that one be aware of the update schedule for that database and being a person of fearsome organization.  Wouldn’t it be nice if this process was automated?

You, my clever reader, already know or have guessed that it is.  It began years ago when databases allowed users to save searches and provide an email address.  When the database is next updated, an email is automatically sent with new items matching the search.  Alerts can also be created that notify the researcher when a new issue of a journal is published, and includes the table of contents (TOC) for the issue.

This is still how many people keep up-to-date with research.  But for various reasons, some people don’t like it.  Some find it clutters up their inbox too much.  Some don’t like handing out their email address to all and sundry.

When I ask graduate students if they have ever heard of or used RSS, I am always amazed at how few have.  RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is a way of staying up to date with changes to a website – in practice, with updates to databases or journal TOCs as well. Most major news outlets offer feeds, as do many governments, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.  RSS feeds require feed reader software, but do not clutter up your inbox, are read on your own schedule, and require you to subscribe to a feed, but not hand over your email address.

If you follow only a few feeds, you can set them up in your browser (see some of the links in the selected readings).  Otherwise choose an RSS reader software.  As usual, Wikipedia has the most in-depth look at feed aggregators, though as is often the case, the sheer numbers they cover are a bit mind-numbing.  The most widely used software in the world was Google Reader, which the company shut down as of June 30th, 2013.  If you are new to using RSS, this has the odd effect that now there are lots of articles/blog posts published in the spring and summer of 2013 discussing the merits of various readers.  Just Google (oh, what delightful irony) “alternatives to google reader” to find one quinzillion articles on the topic.  So far, Feedly seems to be the most commonly-mentioned alternative, and it does have mobile apps available.

So how to know if a website (including blogs) or databases have RSS alerts available?  The most common indication is the orange curved stripe icon to the right. rss_icon_2  Clicking on that will give you the URL of the feed that you can add into your aggregator.  Most databases will generate a feed URL for searches, and some for journal TOCs.  Note that on this blog’s top page you will see RSS feed icons for subscribing to the blog posts or the comments.  If a web page doesn’t offer an RSS feed, you can create one using a tool like Page2RSS, which will “will check any web page for updates and deliver them to your favorite RSS reader”.

Finding the feed for a specific journal is pretty simple.  You can use a web search engine to search for ‘journal name’ and ‘rss’.  There is also a service called JournalTOCs, which has the feeds for 22,271 journals from 1881 publishers (as of this date).  CiteULike Current Issues is next, with over 13,000 journals.

One advantage to Feedly, besides that it offers a mobile app, is that it has a channel in the task automation service IFTTT (see my previous session on IFTTT).  So if you are interested in a web site or database that offers RSS feeds but not email alerts, you can use IFTTT to have feed items sent to your email, and even customize it to match certain keywords.

Another advantage to RSS feeds is that you can add feeds to a website if you can embed the feed.  Librarians who use the popular LibGuides software for creating research guides know that it allows you to easily embed feeds into guides.  Blogging aggregators, such as Science Blogging, use feeds to locate headlines and links for recent articles from popular blogs onto a single page.

Another useful solution for current awareness are social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo, both of which have IFTTT channels.  For example, anything I save to Delicious goes to one of my notebooks in Evernote.  There are also other bookmarking tools that are set up for academic researchers, such as CiteULike.  Social bookmarking for academia has been folded into reference management software such as Zotero and Mendeley, because they allow one to add records for websites as well as citations to articles and books.  Delicious, by the way, has robust support for RSS feeds.  See, for example, the Social Bookmarking page of my Current Awareness Tools guide.  The box in the upper right not only is an illustration of embedding feeds in LibGuides, but of creating an RSS feed in Delicious from a specific user and specific tag.  So when I manually save a site to Delicious using the “research managment tools” tag, it shows up on the LibGuide in the box with the RSS feed.

As always with a discussion of technology, the only constant is change.  For this discussion, the death of Google Reader was a vivid illustration.  It also illustrates the beauty of standard file formats, as both Google Reader and Feedly allowed saving your feed subscriptions to a standard file format, OPML,  which could be exported from one and imported into the other.  Now, if only that would happen more with PDF annotations.

Selected Readings

Chromium Project (2013). Subscribing to Feeds.  Accessed July 21, 2013.Current Awareness Tools –  Accessed July 21, 2013.  My guide to RSS and social bookmarking.

Common Craft (2007).  RSS in Plain English.  THE video (3 minutes, 45 seconds) explaining the basics of RSS.  Uploaded April 2007, accessed July 21, 2013.

Mozilla Firefox: RSS Feeds and Live Bookmarks –  Article on how to use Live Bookmarks to read RSS feeds in Firefox.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Opera Mail Tutorial:  Using Newsfeeds and Newsgroups.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Sorrel, C (2012).  Five Ways to Replace Safari’s RSS Reader in Mountain Lion.  Published July 31st, 2012, accessed July 21st, 2013.  Discusses how to handle RSS with the Mac’s Safari browser and alternative RSS readers.

Use RSS Feeds in Internet Explorer –  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Williams, G.  (2013).  How to Send an RSS Feed to Your Email AccountProfHacker, June 18th, 2013, accessed July 21, 2013.

For Further Exploration and Insight

(1)  Select an RSS feed reader if you do not already use one.

(2)  Make a comment answering the following questions:

Are you a new user?

Which reader did you choose?

Name a feed that you subscribe to.






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