These days, I am less busy in the lab (my setup needs to be changed so I won't be carrying out experiments for about a month), so I've totally dived into my literature review again. Since I am trying to get a good insight on several topics (existing bridges, load distribution, shear in beams, shear in slabs and failure criteria from fracture mechanics) I have gathered a depressingly large amount of papers which I want to work my way through.
Bit by bit I've developed a way to tackle this task.
1. Read by theme or period of time
Initially, I thought that it would help me if I'd be reading several topics parallel. Now, I've found out that it helps me much more to see the connections between different papers when I gather information on the same subject and read everything I can find on the same subject until I've finished that topic. Every now and then I do feel tempting to vary topics or required level of understanding for the considered papers. I tend to alternate papers on experimental work with papers on purely theoretical work.
2. Speed reading
As I wrote before, I've been doing some attempts to speed up my reading. I still feel tempted to savor each and every sentence, but working with a stopwatch has made me more conscious of my time.
3. The egg timer trick
I'm now using the old egg timer trick to track my time. Instead of the egg timer I am using the stopwatch of my phone (a 6-year-old fridge-shaped Nokia), to see how long I can concentrate before I drift off and go walk around the hallway for another cup of tea. I'm trying to stretch my concentration span from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. My attempts to regain focus through meditation seem to have a positive effect on this.
What was special about this paper? What is the main thought I need to capture? I jot down a few words on the first or last page of the paper for further reference. I also make some notes at the sides of the columns whenever I come across an interesting thought, but I feel it is also important to get the key message and write that down for later in order to avoid having to reread the paper.
I use Endnote to organize my references. Most of the papers I read can be found through the online version of Endnote, so I can import all the relevant information to the data entry and attach the paper to it. Searching, as well as looking how much work of a certain author or from a certain period of time I have read, have become much easier this way.
6. Use the relevant data right away
Whatever I need for the report of my literature review goes in the right section of the document - straight away. I also keep some separate files on the influence of different parameters on shear. I don't have any written text in those files yet (the literature review needs to be done first), but I copy the most important graphs and sentences about the studied parameter, together with the reference in those files. I expect that this will speed up my writing process significantly once I start writing about these parameters. In the end, I will only have to mix all the information together, and then discuss it with regard to my own experiments, instead of looking for that information in papers again.
Admittedly, I print out all my papers (reading on the screen hurts my eyes, and I just am a paper and pencil person), so the physical papers themselves also have to be stored. That system is not as good as my Endnote library - I find myself often going through binders, trying to remember under which keyword I stored the paper I need. Any advice on this would be very much appreciated!
7. Let the ideas melt together
While reading all this information, I feel like all ideas are melting together in my head. I plan to start drafting some mindmaps rather soon, to get the links between these ideas and to point out what I will use for my own theoretical work.