Work hack: How to organize your research literature – and make it sharable

A must-have strategy for fieldwork.

  • Bec Crew

Credit: cifotart/Getty Images

Work hack: How to organize your research literature – and make it sharable

A must-have strategy for fieldwork.

17 July 2020

Bec Crew

cifotart/Getty Images

The amount of literature researchers are expected to stay abreast of can be overwhelming so it’s vital to have a system that allows documents and images to be stored, recalled, and easily shared.

This is particularly true for researchers who conduct fieldwork and need to access information on the fly.

For PhD candidate, Yi-Kai Tea, a taxonomist and systematist at the University of Sydney in Australia, setting up a cloud-based system early on in his career was one of the most important things he did.

“The more you read, the more familiar you are with the field and the groups you’re working with,” says Tea. “I keep my literature very well sorted because it’s so important.”

Tea specializes in describing and naming new species of coral reef fishes. He’s particularly interested in fairy wrasses, and was responsible for naming a new species last year, Cirrhilabrus wakanda, inspired by the Marvel film Black Panther.

“It’s hard to do this kind of work by yourself because of the sheer number of species out there. I work collaboratively with a lot of fish enthusiasts, scientists, and collectors who go out in the field and send information to me,” says Tea.

How do your Google Drive and Dropbox systems work?

I have an account where I put in everything that’s related to fairy wrasses: every single species description that’s been written about them since the 1800s, every single colour photo, distribution map, vectors, diagrams - everything you can think of that might be relevant to this group. I maintain a well-curated folder that can be accessed online.

I’ve also have decked it out so I can access the most important files offline.

I share it with any collaborators that I’m working with now or might be working with in the future, so they can access it in the field. It helps with my research as well, to have all these papers at my disposal. It’s my own personal library.

How did you set it up?

I’ve been filling it in over a number of years. Some of the literature is hard to find – a lot of the original descriptions are in manuscript form, and some of them haven’t been published, so to get these, you need to go to the museums and libraries and photocopy them, scan them, make pdfs, and upload them.

It took a while to track down all the literature and species descriptions, but once you have it, you have it forever and can keep curating it. I save every PDF that I download. I keep it in a folder, name it, and order it by author and by date. I follow this system quite religiously.

What web resources do you use to source your literature?

Some of the old manuscripts I need to access are archived in online repositories such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so having this link saved in my tabs is a really useful tool.

Other important web resources I use a lot are Eshmeyer's Catalogue of Fishes hosted by the California Academy of Sciences, and iNaturalist, a catalogue that keeps a pretty up-to-date record of all species, complete with references.

iNaturalist is a fantastic resource to search for in-situ photos of whatever taxon you might be interested in. I often seek out photographers from iNaturalist who are willing to contribute photos I may need for my research. Many of them are very willing, or may already have photos up that are free for use.

How do you organize your own data in the field?

I have ready-made excel spreadsheets with standardized columns containing anatomical features that I need to measure. I then modify it slightly to accommodate whatever taxon I happen to be working on.

I do same for manuscripts – I have a basic skeleton written for diagnoses and descriptions, with placeholder symbols where values would eventually go.

A lot of taxonomic papers follow a consistent and ‘tried and tested’ formula, so this works very well, especially for fairy wrasses, where most of the methodology and description follow previous papers that I've published.