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; (3) organizing the results of that processing; (4) reviewing the results of that organizing; and (5) doing the appropriate actions.1
In previous posts, I discussed how to collect and process potentially useful sources. This post is about setting up “containers” to hold the results of your processing. The goal is to put each source in a place that ensures that you will handle it properly with minimal stress and effort.
Recap of Stage 2: Processing
The first step in processing is to classify a source you have collected into one of three categories:2
- Directly relevant to some particular current or future project(s).
- Not directly relevant to any particular project, but potentially useful as general background for your field.
- Not useful for your research.
Sources in Category 3 get trashed.
Processing items in Categories 1 and 2 requires answering a second question:
- Do I want to give this source more than a quick scan in the near future?
If the answer is “yes,” then the source goes into your reading queue. If not, then it simply gets filed. If it only requires a quick scan (say, under two minutes), then you should do that scan immediately.
All sources in Categories 1 and 2 go into a master filing system. Sources in Category 1 also go into the appropriate project folder(s), while those in Category 2 that do not go into your reading queue also go into a “General” folder.
The sources in your “General” folder are those that you should read someday but don’t need to read today, e.g. books in your field that are important historically but do not play much role in contemporary debates. I am tentatively planning to add a source from this folder to my reading queue twice a year.
Stage 3: Organizing
This organizing system involves three kinds of containers:
- A master filing system
- Project folders (plus a “General” folder)
- A Reading Queue
I will discuss how to set up each of these kinds of containers in turn.
There is software that can help with organizing PDFs (e.g. Papers and Mendeley), but I find that a simple file manager is all that I need.
1. Master Filing System
The point of a master filing system is to allow you to find any particular source quickly and easily.
The main component of my master filing system is a single folder on my hard drive that contains all of my PDF articles. I name them according to the template “[First author last name], [First author first name]; [Second author last name (if applicable)], [Second author first name (if applicable)]; [Etc.] [Year of publication] [Title].” For instance: “Crupi, Vincenzo; Chater, Nick; Tentori, Katya 2013 New Axioms for Probability and Likelihood Ratio Measures.” That template allows me to search by author, year, and/or title and to browse by first author’s last name and secondarily by year.3
You could also categorize and/or tag your articles, but I find that the effort required to do so far outstrips the benefits. It is more important to organize sources according to where they fit in your research agenda than to organize them according to where they fit it in an abstract hierarchy of categories.
If I had a primarily paper-based system, then I would still organize sources by first author’s last name. I do not use physical books and articles enough to require a filing system for them. I simply put them in one place when I need to read them, another when I have read them but need to process the marginal notes I took on them, and a third place when I have processed my marginal notes but might want to refer back to them someday.
2. Project Folders
The point of the project folders is to track all of the sources you are aware of that are potentially useful for a particular current or possible future project.
My project folders are simply folders on my computer inside the main folder that contains all of my PDFs. In each project folder I put shortcuts to the PDF files that are relevant to the corresponding project. I also create an empty text document for each source that is relevant to that project that I do not have in PDF format. I use the template above to create a title for that text document. Its purpose is simply to remind me at opportune times that the associated article or book exists.
For a paper-based system, I would suggest organizing the actual articles alphabetically and simply keeping a list of sources for each project.
When a possible future project becomes a current project, review the sources in the relevant project folder to decide which ones to add to your reading queue.
3. Reading Queue
The point of a reading queue is to hold the sources that you want to read as soon as you can get to them. Sources that you need to read by a particular deadline or in order to take the next step in your research supersede the items in your reading queue.
My reading queue is another folder on my hard drive. Again, that folder contains shortcuts and text documents rather than the original PDF files.
Priorities change too often for it to be worthwhile to prioritize the items in your reading queue “once and for all.” “Queue” is really a misnomer; “corral” would be more accurate. Simply decide which source to read next after you finish the previous one.
The Next Step: Reviewing
Your research agenda changes, so you need to review your project folders and reading queue periodically to keep them up to date. I will discuss this review process in a future post.
Question: Do you have any suggestions for improving this system or any organizational needs that it does not meet?
To share your thoughts about this post, comment below or send me an email. To use $\LaTeX$ in comments, surround mathematical expressions with single dollar signs for inline mode or double dollar signs for display mode.
- These steps come from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. The purpose of this series of posts is to adapt GTD principles to the problem of managing research sources. ↩
- I have slightly refined these steps since writing my original processing post. ↩
- People geekier than I am tell me that using upper-case letters and spaces in file names can cause problems, but for me the gain in readability seems worth the risk. ↩