The Filing Problem

I am back in academia, and now i must decide how i’m going to sort out my papers. I’ve been avoiding the problem, but the rate at which i’m accumulating paper, and PDFs, means I’ve now got to settle on some method for keeping track of everything. Whatever the system is, it needs to facilitate the these things for me:

  • 1. Keeping track of my paper copies of journal articles (which ones i have, where they are)
  • 2. Keeping track of my PDF copies of journal articles (which ones i have, where they are)
  • 3. Searching both paper and electronic copies of journal articles
  • 4. Easily inserting (auto-formatted) journal references into manuscripts
  • 5. Organising and searching of non-journal bits of paper (newspaper cuttings, unpublished manuscripts, miscellaneous text, etc).
    [Or, at least, those are what I think my needs are]

  • I’m interested in how everyone else does this. I presume that all academics (and most informational professionals, for that matter) have to deal with the overwhelming amount of information it is possible to accumulate. I feel/hope there’s a good solution out there, but I’m struggling to reconcile all the different types of information i want to keep and use, and the different purposes for which I want to use them.

    One solution I’ve seen is to keep all the papers in topic-organised folders, and a list of what you’ve got in something like Endnote. Problem with this is that I’m never very comfortable with topic-based organisation. I’ve never managed to specialise (read: focus) on one field, so there isn’t really the coherence in my papers that makes organising my topic natural. Papers speak to several topics, or don’t fit neatly into any.

    My PhD supervisor uses biblioscape to keep a record of what he’s got on paper, and he organises the hard-copies by accession number – ie as he gets a paper he puts a number in the top corner and stores them all in numerical order. It’s a neat way of getting round issues with deciding how to store the papers. It means that recent papers are on top (so to speak), but it does mean you lose any other implicit organisation that might arise from, say, storing by first author or topic. Plus he’s dependent on his electronic index working (and by most reports biblioscape is a bit flakey. And the reference insertion add-on i never got to work perfectly too).

    One other guy in the research group writes short pieces of text which reference each paper he’s got. It’s a good way or giving more coherence to papers he has read before filing them away. I don’t know how he keeps track of the actual paper (and PDFs as well).

    Other people (including my co-author on the book) use a self-authored web-app to keep track of their notes, hyperlinks and documents. This has the advantage of being accessible anywhere, and – since it’s web based – there’s lots of cross-referencing and search functionality already ‘built in’. In fact, after the book, I was so taken with how useful wikis are, that i’ve started my own to keep my notes and hyperlinks – but it doesn’t seem ideal for organising my bits of paper. I’m happy storing my own short notes, memos and links on a combination of this blog and my personal wiki, but i’m still left with the paper problem (ie items 1 through 5 on my wish list).

    This is the system I adopted during my PhD: A filing cabinet with all journal papers organised by author; Using Endnote to keep track of what is in the filing cabinet, with a keyword to indicate if it was in electronic form rather than paper form. PDFs stored all in the same folder on the harddisk with the name in form for [First Author’s Surname] + [Year of publication] (ie Brown04.pdf). This meant that i had to put paper copies back in the right place (which could be fiddly) and also download their details from Web of Science or Pubmed when i acquired them.

    This all seemed to work okay, but it was quite high maintenance, and didn’t give me any good way of organising things that aren’t journal papers. So, at this point in time, i have ten years worth of random bits of paper i thought were interesting at the time, with no idea what is where or how they should be organised (they’re all in different piles by when i acquired them, and i acquired them usually on the impulse that the information felt important, but i didn’t know why – or i knew why but didn’t have anything to do with it). What do i do with all this paper information? And is there a way i can integrate the way I organise it with my academic paper collection?

    I’ve started a new academic project as part of my post-doc, and am facing the need to do something with all the new journal articles i’m acquiring, as well as the feeling that i really should organise all the papers I acquired while writing the book, and papers from four years of research in boxes somewhere – and all under the knowledge-shadow that everything will interconnect with everything else, so there’s no good way to keep paper separate by project (and who would want to lose out on the serendipity of accidental cross-links anyway?).

    Has anyone got any good advice?

    5 replies on “The Filing Problem”

    I have this thing called the “Totally Unreliable Reference Disentangler” or TUR…. oh you can probably work that out for yourself. You basically need an old fish tank, some windscreen wiper motors, a car battery and an old umbrella. Rig up the motors and the umbrella so you can plunge the whole thing down into the fishtank and whirl it around. Now you need to be able to close the umbrella again and pull the who contraption back out… if you have problems at this stage you need more gaffer tape and swearing. Once you’re done, have a few beers and fetch all your paperwork into the lounge because here comes the exciting part. Tip all those troublesome documents into the fishtank until it’s about 2/3 full, now all you have to do to pick out the reference you need it to crank up the power on the contraption. Watch the magic of probability pull the best papers for the task out of the tank! I can give you 100% assurance that if you use the TURD enough times you will receive exactly the paper you wanted fluttering into your lap… and the bonus part is that the TURD will automatically select other papers throughout the process that might be useful! HOW GOOD IS THAT?

    Before this discovery I used EndNote for everything and put the paper papers (?) in a filing cabinet under first authour and kept .pdf files named by first authour and year. I think you will now see that those sort of methods are distinctly old hat and you want to get on the probability train with all the hip, innovative, latte-drinking kids like me. Get with the programme… go build a TURD.

    The Filing Problem: Some Replies

    Just a few responses i had to my post about the filing problem. I’m still interested to hear from any one else who has good advice on information management systems MD said: You know you’re having a frustrated day when you reply quickly to emails about…

    Keeping track of stuff

    In the aftermath of the elections, it doesn’t look as if anyone in government will be calling on me for frank and fearless advice1 any time soon. So this seems like a good time to get my records in order….

    Keeping track of stuff

    In the aftermath of the elections, it doesn’t look as if anyone in government will be calling on me for frank and fearless advice1 any time soon. So this seems like a good time to get my records in order….

    The Filing Problem: Some More Replies

    And just a couple more comments which arrived by email, on the filing problem, and solutions GP Says: I opt for the ‘disorganised piles in boxes’ approach, and a brain which alway knows that ‘I’ve read something about that somewhere, now what was it an…

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