Why I made Academic Sequitur

Mitch Kapor wrote “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” My own experience with this when it comes to staying up to date on research couldn’t be more accurate.

I started as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois in 2011. Somewhere around 2015, I decided I should be more systematic about keeping up to date with recent literature in my field. Up until then, I relied on conferences, a few mailing lists, and colleagues forwarding me papers to learn about what was happening in environmental economics and in the profession as a whole. But I still felt like I was missing some important papers (indeed, I would periodically learn of a relevant paper that was published several years ago).

My initial solution to this problem was to spend a few hours signing up for various journals’ tables of contents. I figured I should track some of the top general-interest economics journals as well as the top journals in my field. So I signed up for: Quarterly Journal of Economics, American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Review of Economic Studies, American Economic Journal: Applied Microeconomics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Journal of the European Economic Association, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, Journal of Labor Economics, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, NBER Weekly Paper Digest, and SSRN’s “environmental economics” list, which notified me about new pre-prints classified as environmental economics. I knew there might be some other papers I would miss, but I was confident that I would see most of them.

What happened next was equally disappointing to hearing about too few papers: I was overwhelmed by the number of irrelevant papers that came my way. The digests from various journals would arrive throughout the month and then sit there waiting for me to find the time to sort through them. Often, I would spend half an hour or more just skimming the titles and abstracts to find papers I was interested in. My brain hurt. Sometimes I would just delete the digest, overwhelmed by the task.

At some point in 2016, I decided to stop being a passive sufferer and do something about this problem, not just for myself but for others. Two years later, Academic Sequitur was born. I love our solution because it is very straightforward and transparent. Our users specify authors, journals, and/or keywords that they want to follow, and we then notify them of newly published relevant papers that meet their criteria in a daily or weekly digest.

One awesome aspect of this solution is that one can vastly expand the set of journals from which personalized updates are pulled without worrying too much about information overload (you can of course still create information overload by selecting too many journals). We don’t do any fancy machine learning, and I think that’s a feature not a bug: people can be sure that papers meeting their criteria will be delivered to their inbox and they won’t miss anything they care about.

With the amount of information out there, you would think it would be easy to stay informed. But we are not supercomputers who can process terabytes of information and distill it to what’s important ourselves. Science cannot progress as quickly if the right information is not being delivered to and absorbed by the right people. Both researchers and society need better tools for disseminating research results, and I’m proud that Academic Sequitur is a part of that.

Tatyana Deryugina, founder of Academic Sequitur

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