Tools for Staying Current in Your Field: RSS Feeds

RSS Feed logo – you’ve probably seen it all over the place. Now, you’ll know what it means.

Staying current in your field is important if you plan to make valuable scientific contributions to your field of research. That said, the task of staying current can be really time consuming if you try to do it by brute-force. When you’re spending hours in the lab each day, it’s not feasible to stay current by checking every single journal website for new articles, hoping something new shows up. If you’re like me and keep tabs on 4 or 5 different fields of research, following upwards of 15 journals and a dozen authors can be a nightmare. To save you time and sanity, I wanted to share the tool I use to stay current in my field of research without spending several hours a week parsing through pages of irrelevant journal listings for dozens of journals, an RSS Feed. It is my primary method for staying current with literature in my field.

Before I start talking about RSS feeds, I suggest reading Understanding Your New Field of Research before reading this article. The exercises I discuss there will make this process much faster and smoother for you. But If you’re lazy like me and don’t want to read it, here’s the what you need to get up to speed:

  1. A list of big-name researchers in your field(s) (PIs, Postdocs, maybe some graduate students, their collaborators)
  2. A list of journals that your big name researchers regularly publish in.
  3. A list of highly cited articles in your field .
  4. A list of highly important/relevant papers in your field.
  5. A list of any previous publications in your lab related to your field of research

Once you have this information, moving forward will be much easier.

What is an RSS Feed?

You’ve probably seen the orange RSS Feed icon all over the place, but never bothered to explore what it is. I can’t say I blame you, since when you click on it you usually end up with either a sketchy 1990’s era looking website (see below, left) or pages of raw HTML text designed to scare people away (see below, right).

Don’t be turned off by this. We’ll get to how to use them in a minute.

Generally, RSS Feeds are a method of aggregating posts from all sorts of places on the internet into a single streamlined list with links to the original post. ‘RSS’ stands for ‘Rich-Site Summary’, which is pretty representative of their purpose. They summarize new content posted on a particular website. You might be able to imagine how useful this could be in terms of getting news from your favorite sources, keeping tabs on your favorite time-killing websites (I like LifeHacker, Biggerpockets, and Investopedia). They can be applied pretty much any way you can dream up.

As far as we’re concerned, almost every peer-reviewed journal has an RSS Feed associated with their publications (and where they do not, you can easily make one). Additionally, you can make feeds for authors, their personal and article-specific citations, and much more (you can probably see how those lists are going to come in handy now). What that means is every time an article is published on a particular feed link, you get a notification on your feed reader about it. You can imagine trying to keep track of a dozen journals, some of which publish hundreds of articles a week (e.g. Optics Express), sifting through their website 20 articles at a time everyday can be a huge pain. Doing this for multiple journals, authors, reference lists, etc. can be excruciating. RSS feeds give you a way to compile and sift through things quickly, save what’s relevant and toss what’s not.

Where do I start making an RSS feed?

There are a number of “RSS Feed Readers” out there for you to use. MS Outlook has an RSS Feed Reader built directly into it. While I swear by Outlook for email and scheduling, I find it’s RSS feed to be kind of clunky and annoying. Other tools are offered by Feedly, NewsCrawler, FeedDemon, and a number of others.

Digg Reader Logo

Personally, I am a huge fan of Digg Reader. It has no ads, frills, bells and whistles. It’s very basic, simple to operate, easy to navigate, and works exactly how I want it to. Additionally, they have iOS and Android apps that work almost exactly like the web version. You can click to expand titles that look interesting to skim the abstracts and save them for later when it’s convenient for you to download them on your computer. For the rest of the articles that don’t matter, you can mark them as “read” and they more or less disappear. You can group all of your feeds by areas of research, which I am a big fan of. It’s just an all-around good web tool… plus it’s free. I recommend it to anyone and everyone interested in a simple RSS Feed Reader. If you plan to be a power-user of RSS feeds for all of your news, sports, politics, music, podcast and blog updates, you may want to look into a reader with more bells and whistles. Lifehacker has an extensive list of options available here if you want to do some of your own research.

So how does it work?

Pretty much, you provide your feed with a series of URL links. These links provide your feed with the locations for where the articles you are interested in are published. When a new article is published on that link, your RSS feed gets a notification that there is new content, which it then retrieves and presents to you in the form of a list of titles. In the end, all you see is a list of newly published articles from the places you want.

Sounds fancy and potentially difficult, but it’s really straightforward, I promise.

Setting up and RSS Feed

If you’re convinced you want to start using and RSS feed, I’ll show you how to get started setting one up in Digg Reader, since that’s what I prefer to use.

  1. Make an account with Digg Reader.
  2. Pick a journal you want to want to add to your list. I’m going to use Optics Express since it’s easy to find.
  3. In the bottom left corner of the screen, there’s a little button that says add. Click on it and search for your journal name.

    Search for Optics Express in Digg Reader
  4.  A list should come up populated with the items you searched for. If you see the journal, click the “add” button and it will get added to you list.

    Check the boxes for the feeds you want to follow. (I follow BOE as well, so i checked them both off)
  5. Let’s say you don’t see that journal on the list, for an example I will use the journal Neurophotonics. There’s two options you have
    1. Check the journal website, look for the RSS Feed logo (see above) to see if they have one for their journal. (this is not the case for Neurophotonics).
    2. Set up an new RSS feed for the journal.I tend to use PubMed, they’re the easiest way to make a new RSS feed link.
      1. Open a PubMed page article in the journal you want on your feed. In our example, I will use this article recently published in Neurophotonics

        Notice that there is a hyperlink for the journal, Neurophotonics
      2. At the top of the page, there should be a hyperlink for that journal. Click on it.
      3. This will bring you to a new search. Right under the search bar, there is a link titled “Create RSS”. Click on the link. And fill out the options you want.
      4. Press “Create RSS” and it will give you an XML link for the journal that you just made.

        If you click on it, it will bring you to a page that looks like this.

      5. Take the URL for this page, copy it, go to your Digg Reader feed, click add, and paste the URL in the search bar.
      6. Give it a second, it should load the new RSS feed you just made. Click the “add” button, and you’re done.

        It might take a second to load, so be patient.
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat for any journal you want.
  7. Now you can add citation alerts for authors and articles. I tend to set these up for big names in my field, foundational publications in my field, and previous students in my lab. The best way to do this is through Web of Science. You need to set up an account to do it, but setting up citation alerts, creating an RSS Feed link (or XML) and adding it to your Digg feed is really straightforward. This is where those lists I recommended to you come in handy.

Once you have you’re feed set up, you can pretty much stay up to date with your field from almost anywhere with an internet connection in a single place. You can add things as you go to begin building up a huge database of current research. If you ever have to write a comprehensive review paper or do a thorough literature search for your thesis, you are miles ahead of the game.

It’s also worth mentioning email alerts, where instead of using an RSS feed for a particular journal or paper, you can  usually set up with Google Scholar, Web of Science, or PubMed a series of alerts for anything you might want in the form of an email as frequently as you want. I do use email alerts for some things, and each search portal has it’s benefits and drawbacks, which I detail in another article. Personally, I prefer to keep everything in one place with the RSS feed. Nonetheless, it’s worth it to be aware of email alerts if that’s your thing.

I often skim my feed over my morning coffee, in the late evening, over lunch, or while I travel . It’s easy to just browse and marking things that look useful for later. Plus it consolidates my cellular data usage. I like to think of it like a more productive Twitter or Facebook without all the click-bait garbage to distract you. It’s been a great addition to my productivity. But that said, it’s easy to get absorbed in all of the articles and begin to have an unhealthy obsession with checking your feed. If that’s the case, set aside times during the day, maybe just an hour or two a week, to browse through what’s new and save what’s important to you.


I swear by my RSS feed. It’s helped me keep in touch with the runnings of science, even in fields that are only marginally relevant to my own. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert in everything. Being aware of things will go a long way. I really think RSS feeds are an underutilized tool that can help promote that awareness. Hey, you might even find it helpful for other things as well.

If your interested in the papers that I am saving and reading for my research, I have my saved articles list publicly available as an XML feed link, as well as on my Digg profile. I usually update it twice a week. Feel free to toss it into your feed reader if you’re so inclined to do so.

I will also post a list of journals that I follow on my feed, in case you have any interest.

What tools to you use to stay current in your field? Is there anything that you find works particularly well for you? Drop me a comment or tweet me your thoughts.

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