That Stack Of Papers: Why I’ve Chosen Not To Organize The Papers I Want To Read

I have a stack of papers I carry around with me all the time. It’s basically my “reading stack”. Right now, it’s 12 papers thick. In it, I have papers pertaining to all sorts of topics:

  • 3 are on reassortment in influenza.
  • 1 is on information theory to identify co-evolution in protein residues.
  • 1 is a network analysis paper on global influenza spread.
  • 3 are on influenza packaging and secondary structure.
  • 4 are on wildlife epidemiology.

Upon seeing this list, two questions pop up to mind.

  • Why is it that I haven’t processed these papers yet?
  • Why don’t I have a better way of organizing them?

One might expect that yes, I should have read these papers. (The network analysis paper has been sitting in this stack for over 3 months now.) On the other hand, on second examination of my mental processes, I realized that I shouldn’t be organizing them.

Here’s why.

I’m talking about the brain hack of “out of sight, out of mind”. This is something we’re not necessarily acutely aware of in our daily lives, but it makes a lot of sense. Unless a thing (and here, I mean inanimate object) engages our other sensory inputs on a regular basis (smell, sound, taste, touch), if that thing is out of our sights, we don’t seek it, and we don’t bother to handle the things surrounding it. It’s why the Roman Room system works so well.

So having this stack of papers I have to carry around every day, taking them out of my bag at the beginning of the day and putting them back in at the end, is actually a potent visual reminder that I’ve got things to learn, things to process, and things to integrate with my current research.

Why not put them into a binder neatly? Two admittedly minute reasons, but which I think have a disproportionate effect on my motivation levels to read.

The first is that a binder involves an extra step of organization, and with enough things to do as a graduate student, anything that can streamline the process of going from printed paper to read paper to reading notes is going to be better.

The second is that a binder removes the “spontaneity” in picking out the paper from the stack. This reason is the exact same reason I haven’t switched to reading on a tablet or on the screen. Nothing beats laying out all the papers I think I need to read on a large table, and then pointing at one saying, “That’s the one I need to read right now.” It’s much easier to be “interactive” with the paper, zooming in and out, scribbling on the side, and jotting down ideas in context.

Here’s the results since I’ve started this strategy. The paper’s stack size has fluctuated up and down. One paper has been a “perpetual” member (yes, that network analysis paper), because it’s on my list of things to read, but it’s not urgent. However, and most importantly, my “reading notes” tag in Evernote has continued to grow steadily, indicating that I have indeed been doing the readings I assign myself. This compares against a much slower, burst-like increase when I was storing the papers in a binder pocket. Small changes indeed.

Zooming out a bit, I think that part of why this strategy has worked (albeit with that 3 month old paper caveat) is that it’s the result of iteration and figuring out what works. My experimentation on the best reading strategy actually has lasted over 6 years now, starting when I was in my undergraduate days and Papers was still a Mac only beta software. I tried many digital strategies, only to find that the one that worked best was the most “interactive” one (a topic I might write about in a later post). Eventually, I realized that I needed a cup of coffee, a pen, the paper, and the ability to digitize the notes later on.

My search for better strategies for reading and organizing papers continues. But I’d encourage you to go ahead and try running experiments on the reading strategy that suits you the best.

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