Recipe: Receiving Journal Table of Contents Automatically

Problem
You want to regularly go through the papers published in the most important journals in your research field.

Solution
Subscribe to the journal table of contents (TOC) RSS feed. Almost all journals now provide their TOC as RSS feed that is updated with every new issue. RSS is a standard web format used to publish frequently updated works. A journal article RSS feed usually contains one item for every article, each with title, authors, abstract and link to the fulltext article. To subscribe to the RSS feed of the journal TOC, look out for the RSS icon at the table of contents page. Links to the RSS feeds of some popular scientific journals are:

Although most web browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer 7, Firefox or Safari) will understand RSS feeds (so you can just click on the links provided above), you should use a dedicated RSS reader if you subscribe to more than a few RSS feeds. There are web-based RSS readers (Google Reader and Bloglines are popular choices) and dedicated programs for every platform (e.g. FeedDemon for Windows or NetNewsWire for Macintosh).

Dedicated RSS readers have two important features: they keep track of the journal articles you have already read, and they allow you to mark interesting articles for late use: reading the fulltext article (online or after printing the PDF), and storing the article in your reference manager of choice.

RSS readers are also available for mobile devices such as the iPhone and are great for quickly going through a journal table of contents on the way to work.

Discussion
Regular reading of journal table of contents in your field (browsing) is still an important way to keep up with the literature, even though the use of online databases to find specific articles (searching) has become more common in recent years.

Some people prefer to regularly flip through the printed journal when the latest issue arrives. But not only is there a delay between electronic publication and arrival of the printed journal, but most individuals can't afford to personally subscribe to more than a few journals at most. And looking at the printed copy subscribed to by the department or library is often no longer practical to do on a regular basis.

Receiving the journal TOC by email is a popular alternative, but has several disadvantages:

  • Receiving the TOC by email requires a few extra steps, including providing your email address, and often signing up for a (free) account with the journal
  • Organizing the TOC emails with your email program (e.g. moving to appropriate subfolders) requires extra work
  • Marking an interesting article for later reading requires extra work, because the TOC is sent in one big email message
  • Sharing the TOC with coworkers is more difficult than with RSS feeds

Because RSS is a universal computer-readable format, receiving the journal TOC can easily be extended. One example would be the integration of the journal RSS feeds into reference managers. CiteULike has this feature (e.g. the most recent issue of Nature), but I hope that more reference managers will do the same in the future.

Although almost all journals now provide RSS feeds to their TOC, how they do it might differ. Not every journal RSS feed uses the DOI – now the preferred way to link to a journal article. There are also small differences in what information is provided in the RSS feed.

Further Reading

This blog post was inspired by a recent discussion about the digital divide among scientists.

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4 Responses to Recipe: Receiving Journal Table of Contents Automatically

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    Martin, this is a great idea. And I saw you had posted it through Twitter. :-)
    I am curious about _”Sharing the TOC with coworkers is more difficult than with RSS feeds”_ as I am one of those semi-Luddites who persists in receiving TOC by e-mail (and then often ignoring them and having a top-heavy inbox). How does one share an RSS feed more easily than forwarding an e-mail?

  2. Martin Fenner says:

    Heather,
    you can of course select one or more interesting papers in an email TOC and forward that to somebody else. But RSS feeds are public (not a personal subscription like email), computer-readable, and one item per journal article. This makes it easier to either set up a webpage with all the journal TOCs that are interesting to your lab, or share just the interesting articles: via Google Reader, a social bookmarking site such as CiteUlike or Connotea, or FriendFeed.

  3. Roddy MacLeod says:

    You can easily scan the contents of over 12,000 journals using ticTOCS Journal Tables of Contents Service http://www.tictocs.ac.uk/ With ticTOCs, you don’t *have* to know anything about RSS, etc, so it’s very user friendly.

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Roddy, thanks a lot for the pointer to “ticTOCs”:http://www.tictocs.ac.uk/. It’s a great place to find and organize journal TOCs. But in the end I prefer to read TOCs with an RSS reader and not on a web page.