The Inbox Zero Google Talk recently inspired me to get my research life organized. E-mail organization was a logical place to start, and my desire to try to keep a low number of messages in my e-mail inbox was easily adaptable to the “process down to zero” method promoted by Inbox Zero.
Now I’ve moved on to research papers. For the last several years, I have collected papers in various places (PDFs in a references file, printouts all over the place). When I actually need to organize these for some reason (i.e., to write a paper), I typically go and download all the citations into either Endnote or Jabref, and then assign each paper a unique 5-digit ID number. Then, I put that ID number in the ‘label’ field in Endnote, and keep the PDFs and papers sorted by ID number in my computer and/or filing cabinet.
This system is great for finding things fast, as long as I know what I’m looking for. However, if I want a number of papers on a particular topic (let’s say, ‘synthetic biology’), I either need to do some searching within Endnote (which can be hit-or-miss), or I have to know by memory who wrote the papers on a particular topic, search for those authors in Endnote, and then retrieve the papers by their 5-digit ID number (my memory doesn’t do well at this).
In the end, I duplicate a lot of effort in finding papers that I’ve already “found”.
I’ve done a bit of googling on this topic, but nothing convincing has come up. The best resource I’ve found was at Ask Metafilter, and it’s pretty weak. Some of the possibilities I’m considering are:
- File by category – This works well for quickly finding a set of papers on a particular topic, but it can fail when one paper belongs in multiple categories (either you won’t find it in the folder where you think it should be, or you will have multiple copies of papers in your file).
- File by author – This has a lot of the same drawbacks as filing by ID number, but the added advantage of forcing you to think more about who writes what, and becoming more familiar with their names.
- File everything electronically – This scares me, because I still prefer reading papers on paper. However, it would greatly simplify the storage and searching process. How bad is it for the environment if I just print a paper every time I need to see it?
If you are faced with the same problem, or a similar one, I’m curious to hear how you handle it. I know no system will work for everyone, but I’d love to try something that simplifies and streamlines the process. I’m also interested in comments about particular software or processing steps that you like.