Got to have a system

I need a way to organise and manage my scientific literature. Doesn't everyone? Handily, we're thinking of building one. Perhaps the most blogged topic on the internet, bar blogging, is how to organise. Organise, plan, approach, manage - it almost always boils down to the same thing: having a system. In the timeless words of Dr Hill, "you've got to have a system". Whatever scale of task is before you - organising your photos, planning your tasks, approaching your work, managing your life - there's certainly no shortage of systems to adopt to aid in your quest. Systems based on simplicity, complexity, combining, compartmentalising, mixing-it-up, not-having-a-system, there's every kind out there.

Once you've tried a few of these systems, you begin to cotton on to something. This may be generalising greatly, but in almost all cases, each system a) has some great qualities, and b) isn't perfect. One of the wonderful things about free will, however, means that we don't have to just follow one system: we can roll-our-own. Find someone of the appropriate personality type (you know the type I mean), and ask them how they organise their academic literature. Or their cutlery drawer. Or how they make coffee. Or why they do that first, and put this thing here and that one over there. These sorts of people love systems. They love to have their own systems, that they've tailored over countless iterations to suit a task perfectly. And low-and-behold, quite a large proportion of scientists are exactly this type of person.

And so it comes to finally organising your academic literature (just this one last time, you tell yourself), and what to do? Well, you would pick a system, but there are just so many out there. You'd use your old system that you used to use for organising your physical papers, but it just doesn't quite fit, and there's still highlighter pen on your screen from last time you tried. So what's better then coming up with a system? Picking a service that gives you a system! Yes, that's what we do, we look for the latest lovely application or website that promises to do all that organising for us, so we don't have to.

Playing with countless applications (Papers, Mendeley, BibDesk, CiteULike...) that organise your papers in their own brilliantly clever new ways is great. Really. And you soon find that they all do it in a way that feels not quite how you'd have like to have done it, if you'd written it yourself. Simple: build your own application that does things in just the way you like. What? No one else finds the application as useful as you do? How peculiar other people are. So how do we get around this? What should the application do, if not supply the user with a system? I think it should let you use your own system.

In some fields, an application gets to a point where it is no longer an application, but a tool. Take Photoshop. Ask three graphic designers how to perform some task in Photoshop, say cutting out a foreground object and adding a shadow, and you'll be shown three completely different but valid ways, such is the flexibility and comprehensiveness of Photoshop. The application has become a tool that facilitates each user's own way of working.

A digital literature manager that is going to hang around for any length of time needs to be like this. It needs to provide a straightforward way for one set of users, the minority that just do what they're told, to organise their papers. And for the other set of users, all those pesky scientists who like to have it their way, it needs to facilitate them devising and using their own system of organising their papers.It needs to be lightweight, simple, and not get on the way. It needs to be a tool, not an application.