Even if you’re not familiar with the daily life of an academic, chances are you will have heard the expression “Publish or perish”. In my (limited) experience, it’s not as bad as it sounds since people who end up in academia tend to have lots of ideas and like to share them with other people. In this case, writing a paper may be a bit time-consuming but it’s really just an extension of the brainstorming you do all the time. However the problem comes when trying to keep track of your various ideas. It’s very rare that one project finishes neatly before the next begins and so a person needs a way of keeping tabs on multiple projects at once.
The approach I’ve been using is borrowed from an engineering firm I used to work for.It simply involves creating a folder on your computer called “projects” (“papers”, “ideas” etc) and adding each new project in a numbered and labeled subfolder, e.g. “1 – PV and consumer behaviour”, “2 – PV industry analysis” and so on. I tend to start folders with just one file in them, a plain-text file containing a quick abstract with the paper idea and a list of relevant references if applicable. However as the paper progresses, you can then add subfolders for data, analysis scripts, drafts and so on.
The system works well but I’ve tried to improve it by adding a database to keep track of meta-information (such as the status of each paper, the target journal, deadlines) and to generate summary reports. This feature demonstrates the advantage of numbering the folders since the unique id can be used to track the paper in the database and other applications; the text label is just there to provide a quick reminder of the topic. At the moment I’ve got 28 papers in my database, ranging from new concepts and abandoned ideas to submitted and finished publications:
As a side-note, the abandoned category is more useful than it looks. Keeping track of old ideas means that you can still access your thoughts and incorporate them into later works without committing time to a full-blown paper now. (Also, if someone publishes a revolutionary paper on the subject in the meantime, you can always pull out the database and say you thought of it first…)
Of course, everyone has their preferred method of accessing information and the ‘numbered folders’ technique may not be for you. In fact although I do find this method useful, it’s not perfect and I’d be interested to hear any suggestions you might have for improvements.