Keeping up with the literatures – preliminary sorting is key


I found out early on that academic work required finding ways to deal with a load of information. My undergraduate honours class, taken in addition to regular courses, required novice scholars to read three to four primary sources and then five or six papers each week. Whew. We all had to find ways to read efficiently or go under. So we looked for key points and evidence. We were also steered away from summarizing what we’d read towards evaluating the credibility of often contrary arguments. So I learnt, without being necessarily aware that I was doing so, that dealing with a hefty reading load meant being selective and critical.

When I started my PhD I set myself a similar kind of reading target. I decided that I would read at least one book and a minimum of ten journal articles each week – I would skim more, but would engage with ten papers in detail.  As it turned out, this wasn’t such a huge task and I often read more than this. And I not only got through lots of material, but I also cemented in a pattern of looking at the journals regularly.

And I’ve kept this up. I used to get alerts from journals but now I just use the app Browzine (which I’ve talked about before). Each week I look at forty or so new papers from thirty core journals in my areas of interest.

My first task is to decide if the paper is of interest. If so, I then save it.

I have a set of Browzine folders for articles which relate to my current projects. My first organising task was to sort out the types of papers I was going to keep and then to title the folder so I could easily see what each one contained. My titles are relatively separate, they cover a number of topics. But it would be possible to set up folders related to particular subsets of one topic. So if you were collecting papers about the doctorate for instance you could divide these into, say, experience, supervision, writing and so on.

Now, Browzine is meshed with bibliographic software ( Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote) so it exports papers and their details. As I’m saving a paper, I usually add a keyword and phrase so I know why Ive saved it. And just as I did all those very many years ago, I only identify The Point that the paper is making. I skim read the paper – title, abstract, introduction and conclusion and work out what the key message is.

An example – a recent paper that I saved on doctoral education – that’s one of my topic folders – focused on collegiality among doctoral candidates.The writer identified four types of collegiality among doctoral researchers – professional, intellectual, social and emotional – and argued that universities could do much more to cultivate collegiality. So The Point, as I have it saved on Endnote, is exactly this sentence – There are four types of collegiality among doctoral researchers – professional, intellectual, social and emotional – universities could do much more to cultivate collegiality.

I have saved this paper just in case, I may want to use it at some point in the future. I could for example, call on this paper to help justify a piece of research of my own about collegiality, or I could cite it in a more general paper about doctoral education – what we do and don’t do.

Of course, I haven’t read the paper in entirety yet, but I do already know enough about it to be able to go back to it, if or when I need to. I may decide, depending on whether the paper is central to my own work or not, to eventually read the paper thoroughly. I will always do a more general search when I have a specific research or writing task in mind, but I can get a head start in my stored Browzine folders and in Endnote.

You will have gathered that I have not printed the paper out. I have not highlighted it. No stationery or printer ink involved at all. I have not taken extensive notes. However I do know what the paper is about and I have it stored so that I can find it again.

The processes of selection – choosing which papers to keep and their potential connection with your own work – are a key to managing the volume of literature that is potentially useful to you. If you engage in detail with every paper you come across, you end up reading a lot of dross. And you also have difficulty sorting out key points from which you can construct an argument for your own research- there’s just too much minutiae.

Having a systematic way to record and store information is vital. There are many ways to do this, and we all develop systems of our own. You will have gathered that I am more minimalist than many people. That’s just me. I’m economical with my time and only read in detail when something is relevant or it piques my interest. But I do absolutely spend enough time on the selection and information retrieval side of things to make sure I can go back and find things when I want to. And you’ll find your own ways to select and store I’m sure.