• Naseem Miller, senior health editor, The Journalist’s Resource 
  • Samantha Sunne, independent journalist, Tools for Reporters
  • Maya Gosztyla, Ph.D. candidate, biomedical sciences graduate program, University of California San Diego

By April Dembosky

When Maya Gosztyla opened her computer and stared at the 100-plus  open tabs in her browser, she filled with dread and veered to procrastination. 

“I’ll read that later,” the first-year PhD candidate in biology told herself, edging closer to the stereotype of the disorganized scientist. Instead of stacks of unread scientific papers scattered over her desk, it was hundreds of abandoned browser tabs and internet bookmarks that signaled a dysfunctional and inefficient research system.

She realized she would never make it through the next five years of her program like this, so she developed an organizational system for scientists – and science journalists – who want to track the latest research in their field or dive deep into a new area of study.

She shared her tips at AHCJ’S Health Journalism 2023, and in a column for Nature, breaking down her four-step system on how to find, read, and organize papers.

Step 1: Find.

Don’t just do random searches on your topic in PubMed or Google Scholar or fall into the rabbit hole of chasing citations to find important papers, Gosztyla says.  

Instead, when you’re digging into a new topic, enter your initial finds into a literature mapping tool like ResearchRabbit, Inciteful, or Litmaps, to identify the key “hub” papers in your field and create a chart or graph of which ones you should read.

For keeping track of new research and preprints, don’t bother with keyword search alerts or journal listserves that will get lost in your email, she says. Instead, sign up for an RSS aggregator like Feedly, Inoreader, or NewsBlur, that automatically collects and stores new papers all in one place. 

Step 2: Manage

Now that you’ve found the papers, where to put them? Gosztyla recommends her favorite tool, Zotero, along with EndNote and Mendeley, for organizing papers into folders on your computer. Zotero also allows you to highlight sections of PDFs and store notes in a searchable database. Other session attendees recommended tab managers like OneTab and Workona for condensing and grouping tabs, while panelists Samantha Sunne and Naseem Miller added their favorite journalism tools to the list in this Twitter thread.  

Step 3: Read

Actually reading the papers you’ve collected requires discipline and ritual, Gosztyla says. 

“We scientists are not always the best at writing well-written, exciting papers,” she admits. So she sets aside the same time every week – two hours on Friday morning – where the only thing she does is read research papers. She recommends psyching yourself up with a fancy coffee and disabling the internet to stay focused on your PDFs. When you’re just launching into a new project, give yourself a full day or two to get through the literature, feeling free to skim just the abstract and conclusion at first. 

Step 4: Organize

Never read without highlighting or taking notes, Gosztyla says, so you can avoid having to re-read papers months later when you’re ready to write. She recommends writing a blurb for each paper, especially ones you think you’ll want to come back to in the future, including the main takeaways, notes about what project it’s for and any action items, like emailing the author to ask for an interview. 

To maintain this high-level organization, she recommends Notion, a multi-use database, or “fancy excel sheet” that “can do everything.” But the learning curve can be steep, she warns, taking some people a month or more to get used to. Make sure you identify a need you want to fill, she says, before investing the time in a new tool that may not be worth it for you.

April Dembosky is the health correspondent at KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, Calif. She was a 2023 AHCJ-California Health Journalism Fellow.