RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a system that allows readers to receive “feeds” of new content from various online sources to their computer without having to visit each site individually. By using an aggregator, one can subscribe to his or her favourite blogs, news feeds, and other sources of syndicated information and receive new articles as soon as they are posted online.
An amusing introduction to aggregators is given in this short video by Commoncraft:
Generally speaking, subscribing to a blog or science news site is as simple as clicking on the “RSS”, “XML”, “Atom”, or other “Subscribe” link. For example, you will notice to the right some links that allow you to subscribe to the Feedburner feeds for this blog, either by email or to an aggregator, or through the larger DNA Network feed encompassing the posts of multiple genetics blogs. (The only downside for bloggers is that hits do not register if someone reads a post in a feed reader rather than coming to the blog — but hey, they’re reading the post, which is what counts!)
Aggregators can be used for more than just reading news and blogs. Many journals have their tables of contents available as RSS feeds. In addition, you can have scientific literature databases such as PubMed (which is free) and Web of Science (subscription required) automatically perform regular searches and send the results to your aggregator. This latter application is incredibly useful, but it is more complicated than subscribing to blogs or news feeds. Fortunately, the University of California San Diego has been kind enough to provide an illustrated guideline to setting up RSS feeds for these and other literature databases.