Literature synthesis table

Hello, I am a new DT user and am trying to set up DT to help with academic research. Like many, I am overwhelmed by the number of articles to read in my field. I have a huge number of articles that seem like they would be interesting to read stored on my hard disk, and I am looking for a way to prioritize and track my reading. Is it possible to use Sheets in DT to set up a literature synthesis table that would list all the articles in a particular folder as rows, with columns that I could customize for my status and reading notes? For example, I would like to have a column that reflects my initial priority for reading that article, and a note about the reason why the article seems useful, as well as additional columns that I could fill in as I read. Any suggestions for a way to set this up, if it is even possible?
Thank you!

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Welcome @goodday
You can use sheets in whatever way you find useful. However, there is nothing built in to generate such a sheet and this is the first request of its kind. A script could likely do this, but note it’s static data and not going to update when you add/remove items or modify their metadata.

Why not just apply custom metadata and sort on that column in the item list? Here’s an example…

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Cool - that should do the trick! Thanks!

You’re welcome :slight_smile:

You can also use tags to prioritize (first, second, etc) and track your readings (Toberead, ongoing, completed).

Fellow academic here. Welcome to DT — you have just found the best research tool that may well stay with you for your entire life! It’s just the best.

I once implemented a system like yours. But I was also sitting on way too much to read, and it turned out that the overheads of maintaining the system proved much more arduous than I’d thought. It didn’t really scale. I spent more time triaging than reading.

So today, I take a much more targeted and project-based approach to my academic reading. I would love, love, love a kind of curiosity driven habit — what don’t I know about and what do I want to be surprised by today? But between the morning’s class, the afternoon’s meetings, and the student consultations, that sort of approach is also a pure indulgence, and it has soon turned into ‘what MUST I read before I can write my next paragraph?’.

All this to say that I would keep that system very light-touch.

I use tags for this sort of thing. My ‘Library’ group of PDFs is a huge bucket, or two really, between primary and secondary lit. I tag everything that needs to be read for particular projects (mostly writing job, articles, books, etc). These tags then feed into a ‘smart group’ for each project, which give me a nice subset of the library that is focused. I mostly mark whatever I have read and have reading note for with a coloured label, so that future me knows I have an additional resource for the piece. This may sound involved but it’s very quick to work with. It’s just the reading and thinking that takes ages :slight_smile:

Good luck and enjoy your DT.

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So true.

I agree with others here that the overhead of maintaining such a sheet is going to overwhelm you, and I think is unnecessary work given DT’s capabilities.

I am a generalist within my field, with multiple “sub-specialisms”, some of which I might not be able to dedicate time to for months at a time (I also have several non-work-related academic interests which I also track, for fun). For this reason, I am very careful about filing papers within groups in my database, and I file stuff as soon as I come across it, even if I know I may not be able to read it for many months (or perhaps years!). For me, I need to know it is there when I return to that topic, but given the volume of stuff that crosses my desk I cannot realistically read it all straight away. I tag all the files in my database by their type, and I have a tag of academic paper. This means when I need to see all the papers I’ve gathered on a topic, I just go to the relevant group and filter on my tag of academic paper. I can then do searches on any key words. Alongside this I of course have all my other notes.

I don’t know how other researchers use DT, but when I am going into my database I usually already have a vague question in mind. It may be one I already know the answer to but can’t remember (in which case there will be notes I wrote previously waiting for me), or it’s a new question and I want to review what I’ve already gathered that might be relevant so I can start thinking about how to proceed.

Where my system has recently been failing is in the triaging of unread content. I have too much unread material in my database and it’s not been triaged according to priority, only topic. For this reason, I’ve implemented a new set of tags to try and remedy this. As I add a new paper, knowing I will probably not return to it for many months or until I actually need it, I assign one of these tags:

Screenshot 2023-09-08 at 10.57.20

Everything is technically already self-selected by the time it hits my database (I must have thought something was of interest in the first place in order to have downloaded it to DT), and these tags help me navigate “this paper seems very relevant and I need to read it soon. That paper might be relevant but is going to have to wait a while.” There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about how stuff enters our databases, but for me I monitor various key words in my specialisms and skim abstracts. I do this weekly, and try to view with a wide lens of what might not be relevant for now but is likely to be a question in future (in which case I download the paper now and file for future use). (I also have colleagues doing their own version of this, and we swap papers which then also need to be added to my ever-growing pile!)

I already had other triaging tags that I used for “doing right now” stuff, which I am continuing to use alongside my new 1-5 tags:

Screenshot 2023-09-08 at 11.04.22

(DT does not recommend emojis in tag names and you use them at your own risk, isn’t that right @BLUEFROG :joy:)

Read Next is reserved for “do not read anything else new until you’ve read this”. Currently working on is for papers (and other file types) I’m… currently working on (my tags are fairly self-explanatory!). To action is a file I’ve completed the reading of but have not yet written up. Circling is stuff I started that I’ve had to temporarily set aside for some reason (it exists as a tag so that my currently working on tag doesn’t get full of stuff I can’t currently move forward). I can click on these tags and view a list of files currently with that tag, and then get to work.

I’ve only recently implemented my 1-5 tag triaging, so only time will tell whether that part of my workflow actually works.


Have you looked at the Tools->Create Metadata Overview?

You get a TSV (tab separated values) file, which will appear like a table in Devonthink and is easily imported into spreadsheets.

I’ve got a deadline I have to meet. Let me know if you need more info.