For the people here who do not yet work entirely electronically, and still use printed papers & old school folders to organise their papers, do you guys have a system for organising these papers?

I have bought a few folders today and have made a few rough distinctions, but I am wondering how more advanced academics organise their papers once they've read hundreds to thousands of them (and also roughly on the same very specialised topic).

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    Use a filing cabinet... – Solar Mike Feb 26 '18 at 19:16
  • I'm not asking where to put all those folders. I'm asking about how to best structure that collection of papers. – R. Kohlisch Feb 26 '18 at 19:27
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    I structure them on random piles on random desks and bookshelves across offices, labs and home :-) – Massimo Ortolano Feb 26 '18 at 19:28
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    One of the huge advantages of using a computerized database for this is that you can use tags to organize your papers- each paper can have several tags and be filed as if it were in several folders at the same time. – Brian Borchers Feb 26 '18 at 19:31
  • @R.Kohlisch If you are the OP, you might want to merge your accounts. In case, see the Help center here: academia.stackexchange.com/help/merging-accounts – Massimo Ortolano Feb 26 '18 at 19:44

Separate the semantic ordering from the physical ordering. It keeps your organization flexible, since you can assign each paper to several topics and projects, and change the assignments as you see fit.

This can be achieved by using a filing cabinet or folders on the one hand, and a bibliographic database (be it electronic or in paper) on the other.

Label each paper with some identifier. I recommend the date or month, but also a running number will do. The label doesn't have to carry any meaning. Collect the papers with a certain range of labels in one folder. For example all papers with labels January to March go in one folder called "Jan-March 2018".

In your database, each entry should also carry the corresponding label under which the paper can be retrieved, in addition to the bibliographic data, and any semantic information such as projects and topic keywords. Use the database, not the physical location, for organizing the papers by substance matter.

How the database itself should be organized is another question. I use folders for projects and keywords for topics. Creating a systematic ontology or adopting an existing ontology (e.g. the Dewey system) seems overkill. Instead, I recommend creating keywords on the fly ("tagging") and combing through the keyword list once in a while. This will be more difficult with a paper-based organization than with an electronic database, of course.

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  • +1, this is how I used to do it. I just kept them in alphabetical order by author surname, sub-ordered by date. This meant I could often skip the database look-up if I had a specific paper in mind or was chasing up a reference from another publication. – Pont Feb 27 '18 at 9:46

Personally, I am not keen on organizing printed papers. Even though I prefer to read paper documents, I have never been able to devote enough space for proper organization and have resorted to ad hoc printing of those I really want to analyze in detail (knowing that after a few days after reading I will misplace them somewhere) and on-screen reading of those I really only want to skim through.

However, before the introduction of digital technologies, the storage of paper-based documentation was an art. It was perfected by well-known sociologist, Niklas Luhmann (indeed, his system of filling cabinet was one of the things that he is famous for). He used system of filling cabinets to store tens of thousands of paper documents: Luhmann's filling cabinet

As far as I know, he used filling cabbinet-based system for storage of a number of paper fiches, used to organize different ideas: abstracts of books, ideas for papers, etc. I am no aware of him using this method to store full papers, nevertheless you may look into it as an inspiration for your problem solution.

Luhmann's system was subject to a number of studies. Himself, he described the system in the following paper: Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen. This seems to be one description of his system in English.

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    thanks. however: Although they were paper document, luhmann did not use his system for the storage of academic papers. – janus Feb 26 '18 at 22:44

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