PDF Hoarders! Helping Graduate Students Stay Organized
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

What a writer asks of his reader is not so much to like as to listen.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Candace Schaefer

As I was watching Hoarders on television one evening, it occurred to me that some of the graduate students I was working with were, in fact, PDF hoarders. Hoarders, as you may know, accumulate an overwhelming number of possessions and then are at risk of being consumed by them. They have difficulty making decisions about what should be saved and what should be discarded, because they can no longer see that one item is more valuable than another. In addition, hoarders want everything in plain sight so they won’t forget anything.

But what’s a PDF hoarder? Think about the graduate student cubicle. What do you think of? Empty coffee cups and massive numbers of printed PDF journal articles. But there’s more. Look in their binders and you will see more PDF articles. Take a look in the back seat of their cars. More PDF articles. All of them dog-eared and highlighted. Where is the grad student? Sleeping on the couch snuggled under a blanket of PDF articles.

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But you get my point. Graduate students working on their literature reviews or background sections are told they need to have an exhaustive knowledge of their subject, so they read, and read, and read, and read. They are ambitious yet directionless, because they don’t know what to do with all of this information. This lack of direction puts them into a tailspin of accumulating even more information.

At a certain point, all of the information they have flattens out. It’s difficult for them to remember what they have read, so they want to keep the information close at hand, and because the information is so massive that none of it stands out, it is difficult for them to prioritize the information. When they find they cannot write because they don’t know what to do with the information, they gather more information. Do you see where I’m going here? PDF Hoarders.

When I encounter graduate students in that situation, I realize that they need to have a strategy to organize and prioritize. Then they can usually start writing. I break down the larger task into smaller activities. First, I ask them to give me a quick summary of their main points. If they have difficulty, I know that they are still struggling with either the topic or the literature, or both. When I ask them about how they study, they say that they read the article and use highlighters to indicate relevant material. This type of reading gives them a sense of the literature, but it often isn’t a close enough reading to be helpful in writing the literature review, because they haven’t processed or really thought about the relationship between texts.

When these students write, they gather all of their files in a huge stack and go through them one by one, paraphrasing the highlighted material. The student’s voice is often lost in the din of the scholars’ voices, and even more importantly, the argument is lost. The information is flat. Each source has the same weight because the information is reportedrather than synthesized. 

Students can use multitudes of strategies to combat the flat lit review, but when I work with them, I suggest that they use 4X6 cards to take notes. Each notecard is organized according to the elements of the journal articles in the field, for example, IMRAD (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion). Students read the text and fill in the article’s IMRAD front of the card. The back of the card is used for specific elements of the text that the student wants to capture—a quote, a statistic, or a suggestion for further research. The cards are coded to the bibliographic source and to the printed copy, and students can keep all of their bibliographic information in EndNote, Refworks, or another bibliographic tool. They can then store their PDF files in binders or boxes.

Using this stack of cards, students shuffle them until they see the argument emerge. For example, in a background review for an experiment on reducing salmonella in laying hens, perhaps three previous experiments have been conducted, but no one experiment has combined the variables in all of the experiments. Or perhaps a different methodology would yield promising results.

In shuffling and stacking the cards, then, the argument emerges, but an organizational strategy emerges as well. For example, is it important to work through the literature historically, topically, or methodologically? Students have difficulty answering this question while they sift through the mounds of PDF files. They need to be able to “see” the information in order to make decisions about what to save, what to discard, what to display, and what to store away. And sometimes students need to mourn having to put aside literature that seemed so very important at the beginning. But after they mourn, they will write.

If you are working with graduate students who can’t seem to make progress on their work, or if they submit flat literature reviews, it probably isn’t because they aren’t working hard. They just need help breaking the task into manageable parts before they disappear in a pile of PDFs.