If you’re an academic, then you probably struggle to manage your research sources. Organizing your PDF files and keeping them organized can feel like a full-time job. It’s likely that your workflow often looks something like this:
- Find out about an article that might be important for your research.
- Track it down online.
- Download it to your hard drive and/or print it out.
- Put it into some kind of inadequate organizational system.
- Forget it exists until prompted.
This approach wastes time and causes unnecessary anxiety.
There is a better way.
The General Solution
The solution for this problem is to have in place a complete system for (1) collecting potentially important sources; (2) processing what they mean for you and what you need to do with them; (3) organizing the results; (4) reviewing what you’ve organized; and (5) doing what you’ve decided to do.
Those five steps come straight out Getting Things Done by David Allen. The purpose of this series of posts is to discuss how to apply the general Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to the problem of managing research sources.
I will focus more on general principles than on implementation details because implementation is sensitive to whether you Windows, Mac OS, or Linux; whether you read on screen or on paper; and so on.
My own workflow has a lot of room for improvement, particularly at the level of implementation. One reason I’m writing this series of posts is to clarify in my own mind where my system falls short so that I can improve it. I would love to get suggestions and to discuss particular implementation tools in the comments section.
I discuss the “collecting” stage in this post.
Collect Without Processing
It is helpful to collect without processing for two reasons. First, it allows you to collect sources you encounter in your reading without getting too far out of your reading flow. Second, it allows you to process sources in batches, which is more efficient than processing them individually.
Set Up Your Inboxes
An inbox is just a place to park something for a short time before you process it. You will need inboxes for citation information, digital files, physical articles, and books. What form those inboxes take is up to you. The fewer and the more accessible they are, the better.
I use a “Sources to Retrieve” document in my Google Drive for citation information and a “New Sources” folder on my computer for digital files. Once a week, I retrieve the articles listed in my “Sources to Retrieve” and save them to my “New Sources” folder. I then process the articles in my “New Sources” folder.
I put physical articles and books in a general-purpose inbox on my desk that I process daily.
Gather Known “Incompletes”
One of the major principles of GTD is that you need to get placeholders for your tasks out of your head and into a trusted system. Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them. The more you try to keep everything in your head, the more balls you will drop and the harder it will be for you to find the mental bandwidth to do creative work.
If there is a particular source you haven’t collected or literature search you haven’t done that you know you should do, then that source or that search is an uncompleted task that will occupy mental bandwidth until you deal with it. Before you do anything else, at least make a list of sources and searches of that kind and put it in your inbox for later processing.
Gather Additional Sources as Needed or as Encountered
Collect sources you don’t already know about on an “as-needed” or “as-encountered” basis. Early on in a project, you will want to search for the most influential and potentially useful sources in that project’s general topic area. As your project develops, you will want to search for sources that will help you develop your specific thesis and argument. Once you have your thesis and argument fleshed out, you will want to do a relatively comprehensive search around it to make sure you haven’t missed anything important.
In addition to this kind of deliberate searching, you will want to have your eyes open for potentially useful sources that happen across your path. Collect them before they get away!
Increase the Chances That You Will Encounter Important Sources
There are many techniques you can use to increase the chances that potentially useful sources will happen across your path. For example:
- Talk to people who work in your area.
- Connect people who work in your area on social media, including both specialized sites such as Academia.edu, Google Scholar, and PhilPapers (for philosophers) and mainstream sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Scan the bibliographies of the papers you read.
- Set up Google Alerts for keywords that are important to your research.
- Subscribe to the electronic tables of contents (eTOCs) for important journals in your area.
Looking Ahead: Processing
You will often encounter sources that are not useful for your current project(s) but might be useful for some paper that you might want to write someday. It is enormously valuable to have places to put those sources so that you will encounter them again at the right time, in addition to having places to put sources that our relevant to your current work. Setting up such “containers” and putting your sources into them is the “processing” stage, which I will discuss in my next post.
Question: How do you collect potentially useful research sources?
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