Organize Your References in 10 Easy Steps

Don’t get lost in the clutter.

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Look around your office. Do you see unread journals? Proceedings from the last meeting you attended? Cut-out articles you may need to refer to in the future? The last issue of Veterinary Practice News? Here are some tips to get organized once and for all.

Organizing continuing education resources can be daunting. It seems that the flow of journals into your inbox never stops! You can purchase software that helps you track articles. The main disadvantage of using software is that you need to find time to type every article reference, title and author for the system to work. One typo and you may never find your article.

In addition, you still need a filing system to organize your articles. And of course there’s the cost factor.

I prefer a simple and cheap but efficient paper system that has proven extremely helpful and invariably reliable over the years. It was shared by a fellow board-certified surgeon, and it just doesn’t get any better or simpler! Let’s go over 10 simple steps to make your own version.

1. Create your personal list of topics

The idea is to start a list of all the topics you are interested in. Since this is a surgical column, we will mostly discuss surgical topics.

However, it is easy to tailor the list to your personal interests. You could be a general practitioner with a special interest in dentistry, or a technician who loves pain management, or a large animal board-certified surgeon.

As the list is made, assign a number to each topic, from let’s say 50 to 950. If you type this list on a computer, printing it for future reference and modifying it is easy. Who knows? In five years, you may be happy to be able to insert a new category between those numbers.

Here’s an example: 50 (Abdomen), 100 (Anesthesia) … 900 (Wounds),  950 (Zoology).

2. Create subcategories

When you get to “300 (Digestive),” you may collect dozens or even hundreds of articles. To organize them, you can create subcategories: 301 (Anus), 302 (Cecum) … 310 (Hernias).

In a few years, your “Hernia” file may be overflowing. The solution is to create another layer of topics. For example, 310.1 (Hernias—General), 310.2 (Hernias—Diaphragmatic), 310.3 (Hernias—Inguinal), 310.4 (Hernias—Perineal).

Of course, you can keep the file folder “300 (Digestive)” to save general or review articles that don’t easily fit in any other category.
This system can obviously be tailored to your needs. If you suddenly fall in love with orthopedic surgery (what’s not to love?), you can easily expand that part of your bibliography.

3. Collect your articles

This step may not happen overnight.  How long it takes will depend on how much you have accumulated and how many you want to keep. Collect all your journals and tear them apart. Decide which you want to keep, and begin stapling away. 

4. Gather your supplies

To replicate this system, you will need:

  • Legal-size Manila file folders (three tabs).
  • Legal-size storage boxes.
  • A stapler.
  • Staples (Murphy’s Law says you’ll run out after stapling three articles.)

If you don’t like the looks of Manila file folders and storage boxes, you can use your imagination to create your own system. In any case, choose one you can use for years to come.

5. Create file folders

Next, transfer the numbers, titles and subcategories onto the tabs of legal-size Manila file folders.

6. Transfer numbers onto your articles

Numbering the upper right corner of your articles is without question time consuming and tedious. But it is critical as it conditions the usefulness of your entire system.

Choices need to be made: Do you file an article on intestinal tumors under “316 (Digestive—Intestine)” or under “591 (Oncology—Digestive)”?

One way to solve this dilemma is to file under the first key word. You can decide, once and for all, that articles on intestinal tumors will be filed under “316 (Digestive—Intestine).” Or you could decide that titles with two key words are filed by the name of the disease (Tumors) rather than the anatomical part (Intestines).

There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on your preferences.

7. Nurture your system

This step will unfold over your entire career! As you receive journals, instead of piling them up, read, tear and staple articles you wish to keep. Look up the subject number on your trusted list, copy it onto the upper right corner of the article, file into the corresponding folder and voila! Your reference system is up and running!

8. Search for articles

Say you are invited to a shelter to speak about early spays and neuters. You need relevant articles. Look at your reference list under “681.3 (Reproductive—Spay)” and “685.2 (Reproductive—Castration).” Pull the articles from the corresponding file folders.

Once your presentation is completed, it will be easy to re-file the articles.

9. Make tough choices

When you implement this system, you need to decide what to do with the mountains of documents that end up on your desk each day: journals, magazines, proceedings, legal documents, marketing ideas, yearly indexes, CE notes, client brochures.

It is always easier to have only  one system to get organized. However, it may be difficult to make every document fit your system.

For example, you might decide that you will keep a journal dedicated to one topic “as is” on the shelf of your library. To remember years from now that you own it, you may want to copy the cover, write the reference number on the upper right corner of the page and file it.

10. Clean up your act

It is said that scientific knowledge becomes obsolete after five years. This may be debatable.

However, as new techniques are developed, it is wise to go through your filing system yearly and remove outdated articles. Similarly, as new review articles are written, they can replace older ones. In other words, you have few reasons to keep a 1980 article on gastric dilatation volvulus.

Getting organized surely takes willpower, time and dedication. It is one way to clear your desk and clean your office. The peace of mind you will acquire is well worth it.

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