Two dollars and a printed paper

20 Dec

I am one of those people who still reads articles on paper. In fact, I am not a very avid article reader. If I need to learn something new, I’d rather have someone explain it to me in person! Or I try to figure it out myself. For example, I prefer writing new code to reading the documentation of a software package (I agree, not very smart!).

 Making reading easierTwoDollarsAndAPaper

Obviously, not reading scientific literature is not a good idea. So I try to make reading as easy as possible for myself. And one of the things that works for me, is to print out one or two papers, and take them, with a pen and a couple of dollars, to a cafe, not far from my office. There, I order a coffee (the people who work in the Bytes cafe already know that I drink Americano), and I read the papers, while scribbling and drawing on them with the pen.


 The two big advantages of reading articles like this are:

1. Paper doesn’t have wifi, which greatly increases the probability that I will actually read. I am not even tempted to look up that one interesting reference in the first paragraph of the introduction (which could lead to another reference and another one until I am 2 hours further and still stuck in the introduction*).

2. I can write on the paper, which helps to read and remember what I read.

The two disadvantages of printing articles are:

1. Obviously, it costs paper, which is not very environmentally friendly.

2. I need to store the paper with the notes and be able to retrieve it, so that I don’t print the same paper twice (and make the same annotations twice).

NumberOnPaperSo where to keep paper copies of articles and how to find them back?

I use the following system.

1. Each paper gets a unique shelf number.

2. The number is stored in my Endnote library (Mendeley since a few weeks) with the reference so that I can see immediately whether I have the paper and where I can find it.

3. The paper is stored in a hanging folder ordered by number. The papers I read most recently are closest to my desk.

Simple, right?

Yes, it is quite simple, and this system has served me well since 1999 orso. I think I may have learned it from Jacqui Shykoff. But as far as I am aware, neither Endnote, nor Mendeley has a standard entry for “shelf number”. Why not? Am I the only one who keeps paper versions of articles? I once lost all my numbers when I moved from Endnote to Endnote on the Web (I paid a student to enter them again by hand!). And more recently, I postponed a switch to Mendeley because I thought I would lose the numbers again, but fortunately this didn’t happen.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can do without shelf numbers. Even if you keep your papers by alphabet or publication year, how do you know whether you have a paper version of an article? I know that this problem will cease to exist one day. When making notes on iPads becomes as easy as scribbling on a piece of paper. But until then, I will keep printing & drinking coffee as I read & filing the papers in my filing cabinets.

* In fact, this may be why I love reading scientific literature that is meant for a lay audience: it has fewer references.

2 Responses to “Two dollars and a printed paper”

  1. Chris August 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    I write the reference code from the bibliography software on the paper (I use Bibtex, but Endnote has reference codes too, and it isn’t going to lose them because it uses them itself). I work on the assumption that if I haven’t printed the paper out then I haven’t read it properly, so I won’t have entered it into my bibliography. Then I shelf it alphabetically; actually I make up my own codes that start with the author name so I can reshelf it easily, but that’s not essential for the system to work.

    Of course if you’ve been doing this since 1999, it’s probably a bit late to start doing it my way…

  2. pleunipennings August 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Hi Chris, thanks for your comment!
    I used to use Endnote reference codes, but they are not easy to export, so it sort of chained me to Endnote for a while. There is one thing I don’t like about alphabetical ordering, and that is that you need to have enough space near you to store everything (one cannot assume that A papers are more often needed that Z paper). In my case, the older papers are stored further away (in a different room) which is OK, because I don’t need them very often.

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