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Simplifying Literature Reviews with RSS

The dreaded literature review. Hours spent pouring over papers and proceedings. Hopping back and forth between sources, searching for the perfect article; the one sparks a new idea, that backs up your argument, that solidifies your thesis.

Although the importance of rigorously assessing the current state of the field can’t be denied, what if we could make that process just a little bit easier? Instead of trawling through endless publications and outlets looking for relevant work, what if everything you needed just came to you instead?

This was the issue I decided to tackle a few weeks back. Thinking through possible approaches, I figured that any means of tackling this issue would need to overcome a few hurdles first: One being that it needed to let me stay up to date on new relevant papers in a quick and easy way. Two being that I didn’t want to be notified about every new paper as it was published, only work that was relevant. Thirdly, it needed to integrate neatly with my existing workflow; having a separate place for updates would just increase the chances of something interesting being missed.

After some thought I settled on a solution. I turned once again to RSS.

Academic publishing seems to be one the last places on the web that still offers native RSS feeds. Even better, these feeds are usually displayed fairly prominently. In my experience checking with Elsevier, ACM, and the IEEE, most will include RSS feeds alongside the option to receive updates via email.

There also seems to be greater flexibility when subscribing with RSS as opposed to email. Most outlets seem to only allow you to subscribe to a firehose of new paper alerts via email; meanwhile you’ll often be presented with a selection of RSS feeds to choose from. This not only lets you get notified of articles in specific journals but also filter for articles that are pre-print, open-access, most cited, most downloaded, the list goes on.

Once you’re following enough sources, literature reviews switch from finding papers to having papers come to you. This vastly improves the research process as, instead of clumsily tweaking keywords hoping to coax out what you’re after, only the most relevant papers are being presented. In my experience this approach is also faster as most sources will include the paper’s abstract in the RSS feed meaning you can quickly skim to see if it is worth reading without opening the full paper.

Going further, if there’s nothing relevant to see then you don’t see it; no checking in on sources to see if any new papers have been published. If there’s something worth looking at, your reader will present it to you.

The literature review is often the backbone of most academic papers; setting out why such work is merited or pointing out an overlooked gap in the field. And if RSS can help making that process easier, why wouldn’t you want to make yourself a faster and more informed researcher?

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