May 17, 2011

Organizing journal articles: Why must this be so painful?

I have a confession: I hate reading scientific papers.

And that's generally a problem because I'm a scientist, and the primary means of communication in the scientific world is via publications.  Still, I can't help but hate to read them.  Why?

Because they can be so incredibly dry.  Sometimes, I can really get into papers, and I can really enjoy reading them.  But the majority of the time, I just have difficulty keeping my interest (I blame Facebook).  What's even more problematic is that I cannot always remember what was done in papers that I absolutely must remember so that my PI doesn't think I'm a complete idiot.

I'm not sure if it's just me, but I just find it difficult to read papers sometimes.  Don't get me wrong, I can certainly read a paper, comprehend every word, and discuss the paper in its entirety to anyone.  I'm not stupid.  At the same time, I just find it difficult to spend an afternoon reading papers.  Maybe there are too many distractions, or maybe I just need to smack myself in the head.  But what is wrong with me?

I think that my main problem is organization.  I accumulate papers but I don't really read them thoroughly.  The folder on my computer of papers is several gigabytes, organized by first author, year, and article title.  But ask me to find a particular paper, and I'll probably just go to PubMed.  Then what's the point of saving and "organizing" all of these papers?  I'm still figuring that one out...

When I'm about to give a presentation or talk about science with someone, I generally mop up my act by reading several papers, looking at figures, and writing down some notes.  My problem remains that I cannot seem to maintain the knowledge, and that's a problem.

In the past, I've tried a few different strategies:

1) Writing small reviews of each paper I read.  I'll make a word document for every paper I read, summarizing the main findings and the figures, as well as my "verdict" (whether the paper is good or bad).  This i helpful to some degree, as it helps me both in going through all papers very thoroughly and making a judgment on the content of the papers.  On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and isn't particularly productive - I still forget a lot.

2) Just reading a lot.  The problem I've found with this is that reading a lot of papers is just overwhelming (sometimes).  I guess that I've overcome this by reading review articles and using that as a jumpoff-point for reading other articles.  That has seemed to be rather successful.

3) Organize papers into categories.  I've tried this several times, and it's never successful.  No matter how many folders I make or how carefully I catalog my papers, I can never find the exact one I want and eventually end up just going to PubMed - what's the point in that?  I've also tried programs like Mendeley, which I found to be frustrating.  Mendeley is a bloated program that takes to long to load, isn't fast enough, and doesn't have enough options for me.  I found it to be counter-productive.  I have yet to find a worthwhile paper-organizing software program.  Papers looks good, but I use Windows...

4) Print papers and make notes on them.  It seems that every professor has a cabinet full of old papers that they have scribbled on for their future use.  In my personal experience, I don't find having physical copies of papers to be helpful - it's more of a waste of space.  Plus, it wastes trees, and who needs that?  Electronic copies are also frustrating because it's more difficult to read on a screen.  Still, I find it better than having a gigantic pile of papers.

Is there something better I should do?  The answer is definitely.  I need to find a solution that works for me. It's wasteful for me to hobble along as I have been - and it's also kind of ridiculous that I've gone this far in my scientific career without figuring this out.  My newest idea is to read papers and draw little interpretations.  I love working in Illustrator, and maybe drawing out the main points of papers will make it more memorable - plus, it's never a bad thing to have these little graphics at my disposal!  We'll have to see how this little experiment goes...

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