Keeping track of the scientific literature you have read is just as important as reading it in the first place.  You want to have your key papers on hand for easy access.  This will make writing easier and will also help when you are trying to convince your PI of the importance of doing a particular experiment.

From day one of your PhD or project, get organised and have a system in place to help you stay on top of your literature. This can be done with an old-school filing system or by taking advantage of one of the online paper management systems such as Mendeley or Readcube.

Old-School versus Online Filing Systems

During my PhD I used an old-school filing system and every time I read a paper it went into a particular file. For example, any mechanistic studies carried out using mouse models went into one file and work using human samples went into another. Another option is to use the draft layout of your thesis to help categorise your reading.  Old-school filing systems can be cumbersome (who wants to lug boxes of papers around) and less tree-friendly.  Also, cross-referencing articles that fit into multiple categories can get a bit hairy! Many researchers have now turned to online management systems to circumvent these issues.

Online management systems are a great way to organize literature.  Initially it may seem daunting to switch everything over from a paper system.  However, a change of job or lab location is a great opportunity to transfer, especially if you are moving overseas.  Once you are used to an online system, you will find that whatever topic structure you use, it can be easily applied to one of the online systems by setting up folders/menus.

Annotating Your Articles

In addition to having a structured filing system, you should annotate each journal article pdf with a brief summary of the paper. It is a great reference point to return to at anytime to refresh ones knowledge of the paper (and sure beats having to reread the paper!). Important points to include are:

  1. The key authors
  2. The main findings
  3. Relevance to your work – is it complementary or does it have an opposing view?
  4. Should it influence your own experimental plan?

The introduction of a structured system for organizing your literature will help you keep track of the important findings in your field of research in a more efficient manner.  That way, you will have more time to actually do the research!

Have you any other tips for keeping on top of your reading?