Charting the Waters – What’s Being Written?

By:  Janet Cooley, PharmD, BCACP & Kerry Wilbur, BSc(Pharm), ACPR, PharmD, MScPH, FCSHP

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry.  A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient – it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions.  

There’s an ocean of information out there

Planning a research project?  Starting a new line of inquiry? Maybe you just received manuscript feedback and reviewer #2 recommended some unfamiliar references.  Wherever you are in your scholarly voyage, we see you out there, swimming in a sea of information and new articles.  Authors must be prepared to dive into the scholarly conversation, but understanding the literature can be difficult. The goal of this post is to instill confidence for researchers wishing surf the waves of a new scholarly space and provide specific strategies for identifying scholarly conversations on a topic.

In 2016, Nature reported more than 1 million new biomedical articles added to Pubmed per year.2  That’s two papers per minute!  This staggering statistic highlights the need to use technology to curate the information scholars receive and explains why so many of us feel overwhelmed with the current literature. 

Navigation tools

First, embrace technology to set up automated alerts and have relevant articles delivered directly to you.  Google Scholar alerts is just one example of a service that allows alerts to be set up for new papers by an author or in a topic area. Additionally, once you have identified journals that publish in your area of interest, sign up to receive the “Table of Contents” in your inbox for each journal or with a service, such as Read (by QxMD), JournalTOCs, Scopus, and other indexing services. For those of you who enjoy social media, consider following your favorite journals on Twitter.

Resources to track what is being written 

Resource How it Works
Google Scholar (alerts)Email notifications “alerting” you when a particular author or a paper of interest has been published
Read (by QxMD)App curates journal articles according to your interests, sends an email, allows reading in the app
JournalTOCsService sends an alert when new issues of journals are published with browsable tables of contents.
MendeleyReference managers with desktop and web versions.  Makes article recommendations based on your library or the most recently added articles (depending on your settings).
Connected Papers*Website creates a visual representation of papers connected to an original paper or topic.  This isn’t a citation tree, but includes related papers.
Scopus*Abstract and citation database.  When searching for papers, each author’s name hyperlink’s to their other publications and provides a list of the “most contributed topics”.  Additionally, allows citation alerts for specific authors.
Colleagues, journal clubs, mentors and friends*Let’s appreciate our colleagues, mentors and friends that send along articles of interest.

*Note- this service was not discussed in the article but is worth exploring!

Second, when reading articles online, follow the leads or recommendations provided.  For example, on an article’s landing page in ScienceDirect there are recommended articles on the right side of the page.  In addition, click on the author’s name and it will provide additional articles by that author. Finally, review the references cited in an article or perform a “Backward Reference Search”.  Alternatively, to perform a “Forward Citation Search” and look at the publications that have cited an article, view the citation in Google Scholar (among other options).3  An example from Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning is provided in Figure 1.  

Third, explore and utilize all of the features in your reference managers.  For example, with Mendeley, you can create groups, share literature with co-authors, file or tag articles for easy retrieval, and add notes.  While it can be challenging to find literature, it can also be difficult to keep track of your own stuff! 

Dive into the waters of Commentaries and Review articles.  Scholarly commentaries are brief, focused articles providing an overview of important questions and controversies in your field.  While the topics may be broad, commentaries can keep you up to date by identifying trends and gaps.  Embarking on a review article is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the literature in a specific area.4

Finally, do not forget about the lifeguards – our colleagues in the library!  Librarians are highly trained to help us learn what is being written on a topic and can be extremely useful research partners. Within the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Library and Information Science Section, these professionals are dedicated to serving colleges or schools of pharmacy.  Librarians have so much to offer, including assistance with research proposals and review articles and refining our ability to search the literature.  Also, don’t be afraid to seek out user guides for search engines to help further refine your searching skills.   

In the spirit of full disclosure, both authors had questions about this topic when we set out to write this, recognizing that most recommendations came from experience, anecdotes, or mentors.  Given the wisdom of our readers, we welcome all and any additional ideas and comments. 


  1. Lingard L. Joining a conversation: the problem/gap/hook heuristic. Perspect Med Educ 2015;4(5):252-253.
  1. Landhuis, E. Scientific literature: Information overload. Nature 2016 July 20; 535: 457–458.
  1. Hinde S, Spackman E. Bidirectional citation searching to completion: an exploration of literature searching methods. Pharmacoeconomics 2015; 33:5-11. DOI: 10.1007/s40273-014-0205-3
  1. Grant MJ, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Info Libr J 2009;26(2):91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x


 Kerry Wilbur is an Editorial Board Member with Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Janet Cooley is an Editorial Board Member at Innovations in Pharmacy.

Janet Cooley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science, the Director of Experiential Education, and the Associate Director of Interprofessional Education at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.  Her scholarly interests include curriculum, programmatic and course development; professional identity formation; and exploration of the impact of the scholarship of teaching and learning.  

Kerry Wilbur is Associate Professor and Executive Director of Entry-to-Practice Education at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). Her research interests intersect workplace-based learning, interprofessional education,  global and public health.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning


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