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Seeing this as an academic community, I hope this question is on-topic. Academia is still a long way from beta :(

I have a few questions about reading journal papers in the field of engineering/applied physics.

  1. How do you keep and schedule a reading list?
  2. From the more recent papers, how do you track down the one (or few) papers that started an idea or technology?
  3. Then conversely, how do you move forward in time to trace how that technology evolved? How do you decide which is the next paper to read?
  4. (I think being able to do the tasks of 2 and 3 could help me formulate my own research questions in the future)
  5. How do you retain the gist of the information you read from an article?
  6. How do you do the dirty work of the above? What software do you use, if at all? If you write it down in a notebook, what are the essential data points? Like the date you read the paper, publication date, title, author, then writing down (or illustrating) what you see with your mind's eye the information that the article presented, and... anything else?
  7. I envision a notebook with the ideas I learned, then posing my own questions after reading each article. How do you do it?

You may (or may not) answer those questions one-by-one, but they're there to give you an idea of what I want to find out. Offers to make this community wiki are very welcome.

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Community wiki? –  Marek Feb 17 '11 at 17:58
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5 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted
  1. Using a wiki: you can write pages about your current knowledge of a specific topic with links to papers and books you'd like to read. You can use either a personal wiki running on your own notebook or an online version (the wiki software that Wikipedia uses is open source, free, and not too difficult to install and get running). An example of a wiki that started as a notebook of a reading list (sort of) is the nLab.

  2. Use review papers. Identify the core people of a specialized research community and search for their papers. Besides, finding the papers that really started an idea is difficult, most of the time, there is no simple solution.

  3. Usually by interpolation: If there are review papers, these will sometimes list intermediate papers, at least they will give a hint at the historical development of an idea.

  4. Do you have to formulate those yourself or do you have an advisor? The easiest way is to ask the experts what they are working on. Another way is to solve problems of increasing difficulty until you think you solved one where you cannot find a solution in the literature.

  5. Again, use a wiki. You can always expand and restructure a wiki, search engines and hyperlinks are your friends when you use a wiki.

  6. You can measure your progress by looking at the history of your wiki pages (and become embarrassed if you find a wiki page you wrote a year ago which says that "I need to read this paper soon!".)

  7. Have an "open questions" paragraph on your wiki pages.

Sorry for being somewhat repetitive :-)

A good example for a reading list for a specific topic that I haven't had the time to pursue is this: AQFT on curved spacetime.

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Personal wiki is a nice idea, I've never thought of that. –  Marek Feb 17 '11 at 17:58
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One Word: TiddlyWiki - personal, light-weight, off-line, extendable, free, cross-platform, tex-enabled wiki cum notebook. Its simply incredible. Everything in one html file. If you want to use latex jsmath is required. Just install Bob Mc. Elrath's jsmath plugin and you're in tex heaven.

Oh and did I mention there are hundreds of plugins which you can use to customize your tiddlywiki in endless ways. Here are a few of the prime plugin destinations where you can also download distributions of tiddlywiki with different sets of plugins for different users:

http://www.tiddlytools.com/

http://tiddlyvault.tiddlyspot.com/

http://tiddlywiki.org/wiki/Plugins

You can also find discussions of this amazing tool on other SE sites such as this one on superuser.SE.

There are some very neat plugins that allow you to easily create beautiful vector graphics for your notes. Both the MathSVG plugin by Paolo Soares or the Rafael javascript library are excellent.

Happy Wikiing !

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+1 Tiddlywiki is awesome, although I find it a little problematic with Chrome –  Bernhard Heijstek Feb 17 '11 at 20:09
    
Its the best thing since sliced bread. Now if only I could find a live preview plugin the sort that SE has for answers. –  user346 Feb 17 '11 at 20:39
    
+1 amazing stuff –  Marek Feb 18 '11 at 17:11
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Tracking down original paper is easy. You just check the reference list.

I print out papers in such a format that leaves space on left and right of the main text. That is where I take my notes and do dirty calculations. Photo:) enter image description here

My tools

  1. Paper
  2. Pencil
  3. Emacs org-mode
  4. Zotero Firefox plug-in
  5. Freemind
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You could try a tool such as freemind for tracking where information is coming from. It allows you to create a topic, then list from there your primary sources. Then any additional sources can be hung from the original source, and so on. This allows you to track and follow your sources to individual facts.

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I like to have my reference manager (such as BibDesk, but there are many others for other platforms) double as a reading list and note taker. This way, I keep references, PDFs, reading status and notes in one place. BibDesk, in particular, stores its database as a BibTeX file, so it is also ready to be referenced by your own LaTeX articles. I now have a pretty sprawling list of articles, neatly organized by tags, where I have my go-to references for each paper I write. Check it out!

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