Most academics waste time and miss opportunities because they don’t have a good system for managing their research sources. A good system includes efficient and effective procedures for (1) collecting potentially useful sources; (2) processing those sources, i.e. deciding what each one means and what to do with it; (3) organizing and (4) reviewing the results; and (5) doing the appropriate actions.1
Stage 2: Processing
In a previous post on collecting, I suggested setting up “inboxes” where you gather potentially useful citations, articles, and books. Now it’s time to discuss how to process the items you collect.
The goal in processing is to get to inbox zero. That doesn’t mean that you have to read every source right away. It does mean that for each source, you have to decide what it means to you and put it into a trusted system that ensures that you will handle it properly with minimal stress and effort.
For me, deciding what a research source means involves answering just two questions:
- To what current or possible future project(s) is this source directly relevant?
- If it is directly relevant to a current project, does this source require more than a quick scan?
If a source is directly relevant to one or more of my current or future projects, then I put it (or a representation of it) into some kind of “container” for that project. That way, I am able to keep track of my incoming sources as they relate to my research agenda. The sources that are directly relevant to a current project and require more than a quick scan also go on my reading queue.
If a source is not directly relevant to any current or possible future project, then I probably don’t need to keep it. One exception to this rule is general background reading for my field that I should know about but that isn’t necessarily immediately helpful for contributing to current debates (e.g. Fisher’s work on fiducial probability, which seems to have led to a dead end but is historically important). I put those kinds of sources in their own container and add them to my reading queue.
If a source such as a handbook contains components that are directly relevant to different projects, then I break it down into those components and process them individually. For a source such as a book that I can’t physically disassemble, that means creating representations of each component and putting those representations into the appropriate containers.
I will discuss the nuts and bolts of setting up and managing appropriate containers in future posts.
How Often Should You Process?
There are efficiency benefits to processing new sources in batches rather than processing each one as it comes in. However, you do not want to put off processing for so long that the piles in your inboxes become daunting or you have a hard time remembering why each source seemed significant when you collected it.
The approach that’s working for me is to process books and printed articles daily along with the other items in my physical inbox and to process digital files weekly as part of my GTD weekly review.
Of course, I process immediately any sources I encounter that I need to deal with sooner than this approach allows.
The basic idea for the next, “organizing” stage is as follows. If an item is just a reference source or is not relevant to any current project, then all I do with it is to put it in the appropriate project folder(s) and in a master file system. If it is directly relevant to a current project and requires only a quick scan (say, under two minutes), then I do that quick scan right away. If it is directly relevant to a current research product and requires more than a quick scan, then I add it to my reading queue. Those who have research assistants also have the option on delegating some reading to those assistants.
In the next post in this series, I will discuss options for setting up a well functioning system that includes project folders, a master file system, and a reading queue.
What questions do you need to ask to decide what a research source means to you?
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