Determined to be as Paper-Free as possible.
July 22, 2009 5:57 PM   Subscribe

How does a graduate student manage in a paper-free environment?

I'm a part-time graduate student at a Faculty which happily has many readings available digitally. While I am a big fan of taking notes in a book and reading on my commute, the idea of not having to print out all the articles I'm reading or having to painstakingly keep up with my hand written notes in order for the readings to be useful is rather appealing. (Currently, I tag the PDFs directly with comments which are searchable.)

The problem? Having multiple folders for courses, and multiple files for notes, when everything is inter-related to my thesis and academic pursuits in general makes file management a bit of a nightmare. The plethora of online citation tools and portals/publishers for accessing the materials makes me question whether I'm missing out on useful tools out there. It was easier when I was just carrying around a big notebook with my favourite inky pen, but alas, classes are so much easier to follow when I can pull up any of the readings digitally. I also see the advantage of having basically a mobile office on my laptop.

So in your experience, what has been good strategies for you to balance the digital and physical "work space" when they are clear advantages to both? Or put it another way, how can I maximize the benefits of both without it being overwhelming?

Suggestions for alternative device-use welcomed.
posted by margaretlam to Education (22 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
posted by low affect at 6:24 PM on July 22, 2009

You may be interested in Mendeley or Zotero (or maybe Papers for Mac). They're designed to solve exactly the sorts of problems you're having. Using these, you can keep all your papers in one place, full-text searchable, with notes that you add.

You can also compare the features of these reference managers in one handy image
posted by chrisamiller at 6:29 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

This question is right up my alley.

I am a phd student in political science and am completely paperless. I started doing it because I live 2 hours away from my school and wanted to be able to work anywhere.

The key tools for me have been:

1. A folder on my computer called "christopher.albon" that contains EVERYTHING in folders and subfolders and subsubfolders etc... I keep these folders absolutely organized and clean. Everything is labeled and in the right place. My physical workspace might be a mess, but that folder is as clean as possible.

2. Off-Site Backup of my data with Jungledisk (but Mozy is fine). I backup my main folder every six hours offsite... if my house burns down, I won't lose any data.

3. Scansnap to quickly convert handwritten notes and graded papers into pdf

4. Zotero as my "peripheral brain" to keep all my articles, journals, and books inline.

5. A cheap flatbed scanner to scan chapters of books I get from the library.
posted by chrisalbon at 6:34 PM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

DevonThink for munging source material, big(gish) hardbound notebooks for the physical workspace.
posted by holgate at 6:45 PM on July 22, 2009

Seconding a very well organized file directory for school files, as well as a the scanner.

During my first year of grad school I had a tablet PC that I used with OneNote. With a tablet you can write and scribble and sketch all over your articles and notes just like you would in a physical notebook. However, I personally found that by the end of the year I hardly used the pen anymore because I can type up more notes faster than I can write them.

I've just moved to a Mac and I'm using EverNote (though EverNote is also available for PC). Its big advantage is that it comes with an automatic online back up service. The free version is limited in the amount of space, but for 45$ a year you can upgrade to a much larger amount. Well worth it in my opinion.

With both OneNote and EverNote you can print pdfs into pages in the program, and you can search through text in those and other images you insert into the pages. OneNote works more like a physical notebook with sections and subsections. EverNote uses tagging which allows for more flexible searching and organization but (for me at least) is taking some adjustment after being used to the system that's more like a physical notebook.

(As a side note, I still keep a physical notebook for scribbling and unofficial brain storming. But everything essential gets copied and organized into electronic media.)
posted by paralith at 6:46 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Papers ( I haven't tried it). I use endnote.
posted by senseigmg at 6:47 PM on July 22, 2009

Small tip:

Like paralith I keep a small notepad on me for scribbling and notetaking during meetings or whenever. The important thing is that the notepad is blank (no lines), which is better for the scansnap.
posted by chrisalbon at 6:52 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

RE: computer files... My thesis was saved by Endnote. (on preview, seconding paralith) I downloaded my copy from my university's library website. (The school paid for a volume license, so students got it for free.) It might be worth checking into what resources are available from your school's library or graduate student office.

A more blunt instrument might be MS Access or other database program that would allow you to create a file path for each .pdf.
posted by Eumachia L F at 7:04 PM on July 22, 2009

Thanks everyone, for your suggestions so far. I will download and test the applications that have been suggested above. I do indeed carry a small notebook with a pen with me in my laptop bag, and there is still something very useful in forcing yourself to sketch out complex concepts into a concise form on a tiny page.

Right now I also keep a pretty pristine digital filing system on my laptop, using aliases to connect readings for courses and resources that I think are relevant to my thesis. Reading on a laptop is a lot harder in some ways than reading off a page, but that may be a separate question altogether.
posted by margaretlam at 7:21 PM on July 22, 2009

I've put a lot of time and effort into my Zotero library, but I just got to my lab and discovered that the PI uses Sente. I haven't really synchronized it with Zotero yet, but it seems pretty neat. One feature that I really like is that it will automatically rename and organize any .pdf that you import, so you can just download them, drag and drop into the window, and voila, they're all routed and renamed in whatever fashion you choose.

I still hate reading articles on the computer though. When someone comes out with a slick, paper sized reader that will do .pdfs, I'm gonna be all over it.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:26 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Evernote and Dropbox, with Google Desktop for better desktop searching.

I'm a PhD student in math and I need to keep tons of papers and notes on hand. Dropbox keeps all my PDFs available everywhere I go, and Google Desktop lets me find in which paper I remember reading the phrase "non-hamiltonian bipartite" without opening them one at a time. Evernote keeps my work on different projects organized, along with helping me remember what I need to talk to my adviser about when he finally pencils me in.

You can do all the above just in Evernote, but with the free version you're limited to 50mb of uploaded files each month, and I need more space than that for papers. It's only $5/month to go up to 500mb.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:34 PM on July 22, 2009

For online backup, consider Jungledisk + rackspace. It is only $0.15 per 1gb of storage.
posted by chrisalbon at 7:55 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

solipsophistocracy, the newest Kindle is very close. It's not quite letter sized but the screen is the size of the entire original Kindle.
posted by paralith at 8:08 PM on July 22, 2009

paralith: Doesnt the kindle charge you for every pdf you put on it?
posted by chrisalbon at 8:10 PM on July 22, 2009

Papers, if you have a mac.

It's a great program. The design is rather like iTunes, but for academic publications. It'll allow you to easily sort your papers into various (easily searchable) categories (moving and renaming them, if you wish), add summaries and various other things, notes about the author, etc. More than that, it'll get basic info about each paper out of academic databases. (While it was originally focused on PubMed and other bio-related topics, JSTOR, IEEE, arXiv, Google Scholar, and other major paper-repositories are there now too.) It'll export citations in any format you like, and it can drag new papers (related by journal, topic, or author) out of the databases easily too. Apparently it's portable these days: afriend was showing off an iPhone version of the program. It syncs with your computer copy, and you can use it to send people emails with the citation or the actual pdfs on the spot.

Pardon the paen to the software, but it made it so much easier to handle all the pdfs that pile up. I was getting so sick of the files with cryptic titles like sarticle.pdf and 0094572.pdf that were littering my desktop.
posted by ubersturm at 9:00 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also use evernote. Zotero doesn't seem to be much good, being chained to firefox and all. Pretty much the only thing evernote misses is nested categories and a non-shitty iphone interface.
posted by paultopia at 9:11 PM on July 22, 2009

If you're on a Mac, consider using BibDesk and Skim instead of Papers. They're both free; Papers is not.
posted by L0 at 9:22 PM on July 22, 2009

Why not Notebook?
posted by bink at 9:32 PM on July 22, 2009

chrisalbon: the new DX plugs into your computer like a removable storage device, so no more charging for uploading PDFs.

Caveat: I don't own one myself, just relaying what Amazon says, but I'm oh so close to getting one to get rid of my piles of journal articles. Only wish the annotation option worked better...
posted by pcward at 11:08 PM on July 22, 2009

chrisalbon: as pcward says, you can move files onto the kindle yourself. Amazon only charges to send things to your Kindle wirelessly, because you're essentially using a phone network and that ain't free. They will, for free, convert files to the Kindle format and email them back to you so that you can load them on to your Kindle.

My boyfriend got me the Kindle as a present. It's not perfect by a long shot and if I was going to pay for it myself I probably would have waited until it was more improved, but that said, I still love it for the same reasons I love all things paper-less; no more lugging around pounds of books and notebooks, everything I want I can carry with me at all times.
posted by paralith at 12:27 AM on July 23, 2009

Caveat about the kindle: it doesn't preserve (or even include information about) original page numbers, this can be a big issue for things like citation.
posted by paultopia at 10:09 AM on July 23, 2009

I'm told InkSeine is great for grad student notes.
posted by zamboni at 4:53 PM on July 23, 2009

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