I’m wrapping up my first year of a PhD program in sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. I recently ran into a problem for which an online search did not produce quick answers.
While the grad school experience varies substantially by discipline, most students share something in common: there’s a lot to read! I found the reading itself manageable, but the growing piles of articles became untenable. I wanted to be able to easily access what I had read, and not lose the value of the highlighting and note taking I had done. I experimented with filing systems, but as the number of articles grew it became clear that I would not be able to find things as quickly as I would like. I also felt increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of my mountains of paper. I even realized that I had double printed a couple of articles (they had been assigned in more than one class).
I tried to figure out what other people were doing with their readings. I wanted to find a way to read, highlight, and take notes conveniently, keep track of what I had read, and be able to move towards instant access. I asked a couple of people, but they seemed to have run into a lot of the same problems. A lot of people also printed out their articles. It sounded like they tended to either eventually put their articles in boxes or recycle them. Some people read on a computer or tablet. These people talked about sorting their PDF files into numerous files on their computer or using a program like Papers on their iPad.
I decided to digitize. I wanted to find a free PC program that would manage my documents, sync them across multiple machines, provide good highlighting and note taking support, and replace EndNote as my citation program. I also hoped that it would allow me to do full-text searches on my articles so that I could find that article by that person who mentioned that one thing. My online searches kept leading me back to Zotero. It seemed good, but not perfect. The free online storage was limited and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the program as a whole when I tried it.
I continued my search and eventually found a forum response that mentioned a free program called Mendeley. I looked it up, tried it out, and became a believer. It had more free online storage than Zotero, and it fulfilled all of my wishes completely. Now my readings are tagged, organized into folders (sometimes more than one), and I can even do full-text searches (which can be limited to particular folders or include the whole library). It automatically finds metadata on the articles when I import them (though not flawlessly), and I can access my readings from multiple devices (or even on the web from computers in the lab). There is even a button which allows me to keep track of which articles I’m done with and which I still need to read.
I did wish that the highlights and notes made in the program were written onto the files themselves in case I were to ever switch programs. However, there was a simple workaround. Right-clicking the files in the program reveals an option to open the file externally. I then use Adobe to read and mark up the files which are linked to my Mendeley library.
I encourage you to try Mendeley. You may give up the piles of printed articles or the individually made folders on your computer. To give you a taste of what the program is like, here are a couple of screen shots: