Last week I explored several citation management systems that store the full citation with abstract and make the job of formatting references within your manuscript much easier. But how do you keep track of all the papers (electronic PDFs) you read for your project, manuscript, or thesis? How do you organize all the PDFs that you’ve collected? I’ve been asked that many times.

In the “old days” before PDF versions of papers were readily available, at minimum I had hard copy full papers of all the references cited in any manuscript I edited. I also had abundant print copies of just the abstracts of any studies that seemed potentially relevant to the given project, obtained through literature searches I had conducted. These hard copies were stored with each project. The advantage was I could write extensive notes on each one, so at revision time I could quickly recall what was important, relevant, or different about a given study.

For many years now, electronic (usually free) PDF versions of papers have been readily available. The challenge has become how to store and sort them to quickly find them when you need them, to remind you which ones are important, and to recall the relevant details, or where within your manuscript or thesis you want to cite them.

For simplicity, I store pretty much all of my PDFs in one place – a folder directly on my desktop entitled “Library Papers.” This makes it really easy to find a PDF when I need it. If it’s not there, then I need to download it. My electronic library today has well over 4,500 PDFs. Each PDF is named by first author (with “et al” if multiple authors, or with “& second name” if only two authors) and year of publication. Additional details (journal acronym, main topic, first part of title) are added if it’s a common name with multiple publications in a single year:

Abookire et al 2001
Franko & Okike 2014
O’Loughlin et al 2017
PRAISE 2018 Lancet
van der List et al 2016
Younger et al 2015 FAI Hospital related cost
Younger et al 2015 FAI Patient expectation satisfaction

One exception – I occasionally conduct large literature searches for systematic reviews or current concepts reviews. For those projects, which potentially result in several hundred papers, I set up a separate “Library” folder within that project’s folder. I deliberately keep those PDFs separate from my own library while I’m actively working on the project. After the project is completed, I copy the PDFs into my “master” library file on the desktop so they’re readily available for any future projects I may work on.

The nice thing about EndNote, the citation management system I use, is that it lets me attach the PDF to the citation. I’ve started doing this, in addition to having the PDF in my separate Library folder. So when I’m actively editing a manuscript and adding or removing citations with the EndNote window open, I can review the full PDF right there. Very convenient.

When I’m actively working on a project, I still tend to print out the main papers cited in the manuscript and write notes on them. Again, I keep the paper copies with the files for that project, at least until after revisions are completed, proofs have been corrected, and the paper has been published. I’m gradually learning to use the “Notes” feature in EndNote to avoid printing out some papers.

If you’re a grad student and collect a huge amount of papers that you may or may never get around to reading, I suggest that your main “Library” folder have 2 sub-folders: “Have Read” and “To Be Read,” to avoid PDF alibi syndrome, whereby one falls into the trap of thinking that possession of the paper exempts one from actually reading it. Depending on the project, it might be practical to further sub-divide the “Have Read” folder into “Not Relevant / Don’t Use” and “Need to Cite” or something similar.

Remember to back up your files to an external device or cloud regularly. Losing your reference library could be traumatic!

Hopefully this blog has inspired you to develop some kind of storage system for your papers that works for you. I’d enjoy hearing about any tips and tricks you’ve used in the Comments section below.

Have an idea for a future Weekly Writing Tip? I welcome suggestions below.