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How to Organize Scientific Articles

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Grad school is the land of a thousand papers. You will be reading for what seems like eons. You have to read to learn; there’s no way around it. You will be surrounded by scientific articles and pretty soon they’re going to be getting out of hand. Organization will be key to reigning in this literary beast. Knowing where your papers are and how to get a hold of the information they have, and quickly, will be essential to your future success. Spending some time now will help you avoid wasting even more time in the future.

There are many different types of people in this world, and I don’t claim that my method for organization will work. What I can say is that it works for me, and I know for a fact that when I’m writing, it makes finding information that much easier. I’m going to highlight two pieces of software here for organizing papers as well as how I manage the physical copies of those digital files. I’ll start with the two software options.

The first program I want to highlight is Papers. Papers is a Mac-only program whose sole purpose is to help you organize your scientific manuscripts. It costs about $25 with the student discount and it really is worth every penny. I purchased this program almost a year ago and have loved it ever since. The main advantages of this program are that it:

  • Allows you to import all your articles that you already have. You can match up the articles with their Authors, Titles, Journals, Published Date, Abstracts and many other categories
  • You can separate certain articles into many different folders that you can create. It’s like iTunes for your articles because you can make different ‘playlists’ based on whatever criteria you choose.
  • You can download articles from within the program which will save you tons of time importing.
  • Each paper is now searchable within the software. This feature is invaluable when you’re trying to find a reference for whatever you’re writing.
  • You can export the references to other programs like EndNote or Bookends
  • The software is also available for other Apple products. I haven’t tried this yet but I plan to at some point in the future.

Already, this program has saved me massive amounts of time and I highly recommend it to anyone with a Mac.

Now, for those of you with Windows PCs, you have several options. The one that I like the most is Mendeley. This program is very similar to Papers and works for both Macs and PCs. It is free to download and has been working just fine on my laptop. From my use of it, there are many similar features to Papers. You can import articles and organize similarly. Reading within the program is available as well as search. Exporting is available and they have mobile versions of the program as well. One advantage that Mendeley has over Papers is the ability to save the articles to the cloud. There is also a social aspect that I haven’t explored fully but seems to be interesting.

Whichever option you decide to go with, I can guarantee that your life will be simplified. Just the ability to search all your papers at once is a life saver. However, one thing that I don’t like doing with these apps is reading the articles on my computer screen. I would much rather have a physical copy of the paper in my hand so I can comfortably lean back and read. This necessitates a method to organize all those physical copies of articles.

The best that I’ve found for me, is to organize the files by author. I have a drawer with 25 folders (W and X are combined). Each paper is filed by the first author’s last name. I’m never far from my computer when I’m looking for an article, so this is where Papers really comes in handy for me. I look up the article I’m thinking of, determine the first authors last name, go to my folders and I only have to search through about 20 papers or so to find the one I’m thinking of. I definitely couldn’t recommend this method unless you were using some form of searchable organization as well. I know my advisor organizes all his papers by manila folder with different categories. This is, of course, why it can take him a while to find a specific paper.

This is how I prefer to organize my physical copies. You may have a better system that works for you. As long as you can find what you need quickly and with minimal fuss, then it works. I find that, for my digital files, Papers has been the best option for me. There are different kinds of reference organizers out there, but I haven’t found one that works quite as well as Papers.

Remember: The reason for doing this is time. There is no need to waste your time hunting for a specific article when there are methods out there for simplifying your life. If you have stacks of papers all over your desk, I recommend you take some time and play with this software and see what methods work best for you managing your physical copies. You’ll be glad you did.


Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, why not sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

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Written by Taylor M.

February 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm

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