Although I do spend a lot of time thinking about my research, I also do other things like sleep, eat, go for walks, read books, teach, and so on.  Fortunately, my research continues even when my attention is directed elsewhere.  If I were working with traditional analog sources, the only way to accomplish this would be to hire human research assistants.  They are expensive, need to eat and sleep etc., and might have better things to do than work on my project.  Since I am working with digital sources, however, I can employ as many computational processes as I’d like to help me.  It’s even possible to create computational processes that can make additional copies of themselves to help with a heavy workload–but that is an advanced technique that I won’t get into here.

This is one area where knowing how to program can make a really big difference in your research, because you can create programs to help you with any task that you can specify clearly.  In my own research I am doing a lot of custom programming, but my goal here is to lay out a method that doesn’t require any programming.

Usually when you do a search, you skim through the results and read or bookmark whatever interests you.  That is fine if you are looking for something in particular, but what do you do if you want to keep up with the news on a topic, or create a steady stream of results on a regular basis?  Tara Calishain calls this process Information Trapping.  The basic idea is to use focused searching to create RSS feeds, and then to monitor these feeds with a feed reader or feed aggregator.  You can use a desktop application to read your feeds (like NetNewsWire on the Mac) or an online service like Google Reader.  I have both kinds of reader set up, but for my ‘super-secret’ monograph I am actually reading the feeds with a different program, as I will describe in a future post.

The major search engines like Google and Yahoo! provide mechanisms for creating RSS feeds from searches.  Once you have refined a particular search for something that you want to monitor (hint: always use the advanced search page), you can subscribe to a feed for that search, and your reader will let you know whenever it finds anything new.

Two additional techniques can make this strategy even more powerful.  First of all, it is possible to use a service like Feed43 to create RSS feeds for any webpage.  This has a bit more of a learning curve, but it allows you to monitor anything on the web.  Second, Yahoo! Pipes provides a mechanism for combing RSS feeds with other kinds of computational processing.  Again, there is a learning curve, but it’s well worth it.  See Marshall Kirkpatrick’s “5 Minute Intro to Yahoo Pipes” to get started.