PDF alibi syndrome

Not so long ago I did a bit of academic spring-cleaning and got rid of all of my photocopies. I’d been carrying them around with me since I did my PhD. Neatly organised in alphabetised files, they occupied three drawers of a filing cabinet. I didn’t feel too bad about dumping them. I reasoned that most were probably now available as PDFs should I ever want them again, and so there was nothing lost by putting them out for recycling.

Yes, I had rather a lot of photocopies. I did my PhD by distance and couldn’t physically get to the library much. At the time, journals were only available in hard copy so the university library operated a mail order system for far-away folk. You’d send off your order and eventually a large parcel of reading would arrive in the post. Getting the bundle of new articles was always a bit like Christmas, the scholarly textual equivalent of socks, schlock and welcome surprises.

I had a set routine when new photocopies arrived. I quickly entered them into Endnote – yes, that was available at the time, I was an early user and a mature age PhD. I did this before I’d actually read anything. I added in any relevant notes as I worked my way through the pile. And, as you’ve already heard, all the hard copies were filed alphabetically in folders so I could dig them out, working back from the Endnote search function, any time I needed to.

The PDF has made life so much simpler and easier. There’s no need to make physical copies. You just click and download. You don’t have to set up special files or invest in a big bulky filing cabinet. Endnote (now joined by alternative bibliographic software platforms) imports PDFs and stores them for you. And because the record and the PDF are connected in the app, there’s no getting up shuffling between the filing cabinet and the computer.

All good, right? Well, maybe… I’ve noticed that I now accumulate many more PDFs than I ever did photocopies. They don’t take up physical space, merely digital memory, and there always seems to be more of that than I can use up. And because I now use a range of portable devices, I often just grab a PDF from a link that’s been tweeted or which arrives in my email and I then store it temporarily in dropbox or ibooks or kindle or cloud. 

And when the journals offer free access to all of their archive for a month, I’m there. Heaven. That’s me searching and saving for hours at a time. Filing all these PDFs can come later. Save now while you still have the link and/or access.

The upshot of all this is pretty predictable. I now have many more PDFs than I actually have time to read. What’s more, they are on a range of topics, many of which have no apparent direct relationship to my own work, but I’ve saved them because they just looked interesting.

And I confess. I’m waaay behind on filing. I’ve lost my habit of filing the PDFs as soon as I save them. I say to myself that I will get a moment soon to transfer them to Endnote. But I don’t.

In my defence, it’s not all laziness. As I write this I’m transferring PDFs from my IPad to my computer, a process that is somewhat less seamless than I think it ought it be. But even when I do finally get around to syncing, as I am now, there are still the PDFs in Dropbox to attend to. The truth is that I hardly ever get around to importing all of these into Endnote, which is actually a pretty seamless process. I just don’t make the time for it.

I’ve wondered why.

It wasn’t until I read Umberto Eco’s recently translated book, How to write a thesis, that the penny dropped. Now, Eco was writing in 1977, at a time of library cards and photocopies. However, much of what he says is still of interest, still pertinent. And when I made it to page 125, I found the answer to my PDF stockpiling habit. Eco says

Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labour he (sic) exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neo-capitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap; as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it. (original emphases)

So there it is. I have succumbed to another form of neo-capitalist accumulation, that associated with information. I have, it seems, a kind of vertigo, a giddy glee which comes from possessing all of those papers. Merely having and storing them is enough. I own, therefore I have read.

Damn. I knew how not to do this with photocopies. I read, filed and noted, and therefore in Eco’s terms, I owned the texts. Now I simply own the idea of the reading, not the actual content.

I’m suffering from PDF alibi syndrome. The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information. Double damn.

After  reading Eco I know what my problem is. No excuses left eh? I just have to gather the strength for the cure. Now just where did I put my willpower?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in alibi syndrome, pdf, photocopies, Umberto Eco and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to PDF alibi syndrome

  1. Kirsten Day says:

    I agree 100% – and all the books borrowed from the library I continually renewed but never really read, the books bought via Amazon or bookdepository looking pristine on the bookshelf … and all those PDFs and photocopies .
    Is this a weird version of academic retail therapy?


  2. Paul Kleiman says:

    I just had to laugh….this is just SO me! Glad I’m not alone. (And,of course, you’ll have a clean out and then there’ll be that moment in the future when an idea grabs you, or is grabbed, and you know for sure that you once had the perfect PDF to help you answer it).


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  4. Hmmm, I can see how it can get out of hand. But sometimes you don’t know if something is going to turn out useful or not, so if you’ve read the abstract and seen that it might come in handy at some stage and downloaded the PDF, then it only takes a few seconds to import it into a ref management system like Mendeley. I often go back later and do a search in Mendeley for papers on a particular topic and then trawl through them properly if I need them for background or to construct an argument. Doing a new search on that subject from scratch would be wasteful, there’s no way I’d remember any of the details, and actually annotating that PDF in the first place might be just a waste of time if you don’t end up using it. I prefer to see my Mendeley library as just that, a library with some stuff in it which I’ll pick up and scan through briefly, some stuff I’ll read and re-read, and some stuff which might never be read but might be needed in the future.
    Then again, I’m only 18 months into my PhD, so this might yet change 🙂


  5. Reblogged this on Black Irish Girl and commented:
    I read and owned this article! Thanks for the reminder that I need to do that with all the material I accumulate. Worth a read.


  6. Thank you for this reminder!


  7. Cath says:

    Yes! Guilty here too. I think this is the academic version of buying gym membership and feeing fitter despite never setting foot in the door. (Guilty of that too….)


  8. lenandlar says:

    I’m very sick too. I have 1000s of pdfs that i would not have time to read (unless i live to 1000). i collect for fun sometimes and i don’t really have a good filing habit.


  9. Paul Bennett says:

    Its so so sad… yet so so true. Thank-you for the reminder of this silent debilitating syndrome that affect so many. I’ll try to be a better person/researcher from now on.


  10. Even sadder is when researcher (me) collects PDFs but instead of using endnote just collates them under subject matter. Good thing about this hideous process is that in the event of trying to find the right pdf I end up reading lots of the articles anyway. Sad, much?!


  11. maelorin@gmail says:

    I have been trying to track down a copy of Eco’s book since it was recommended to me earlier this year. Looks like it will be a worthwhile read once I do.

    I have a PDF library that fills more than 90G of hard drive space!

    I reverted to print/copy-annotate-collate a few months back. My printing budget is getting a hammering, but my focus is returning, and perhaps some more clarity in my writing – and my argument – as a result.


  12. I just stick em all in evernote – space is effectively infinite and it makes them all searchable (even if it’s a pdf of handwriting) and don’t worry about it – if I never use something it’s not a concern because the cost of storage is virtually zero.

    One of the consequences of being paperless is that people often think that I must be new in post because my office at work is devoid of books or paper. 🙂


  13. Kate Paine says:

    I’m doing a Phd by distance (in a non-English speaking country, to boot!) and rely heavily on what I can download as otherwise I would spend an absolute fortune on getting books sent over from Australia and elsewhere. But the downside is, of course, exactly what you are saying. My research scientist husband despairs of both the state of my desk and my hard drive!


  14. Martin says:

    We’ll never get through them all. Just as you think you’re getting somewhere, another wave of papers come in. Sigh.

    Still, it’s great to have them available to search, which is why I use Copernic Desktop Search and use it solely for indexing PDFs and academic-related documents. Comes in useful on an almost daily basis.

    As for not making time for organisation of the files beyond being searchable, batch processing tends to work. Schedule a short space of time once every couple months and it doesn’t take too long. Well, that’s the aim anyway!


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  22. kaleberg says:

    I noticed this back when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1970s. I’d often copy stuff intending to read it. Then I realized that I was copying stuff that I’d never read. Effectively, I would copy stuff instead of reading it. Then I got my first VCR and started taping movies and watching them. Then I realized I was recording stuff that I’d never watched. As with my photocopying, I was recording stuff instead of watching it.

    I think Marshall McLuhan had something to say about this, though I will admit he could be inscrutable. The idea was that using media is a way of avoiding interaction and involvement. He made some kind of stupid pun involving “name” and “numb” as he considered naming something a way of avoiding having to understand it. I agree, McLuhan was not just inscrutable, but often idiotic, but there was a kernel of truth there. Instead of learning a poem or story, we write it down or buy the book. Instead of spending time with our friends, we use Facebook.

    The next question is: why is this wrong? Naming things allows us to think about them and discuss them without grokking them in their totality. It allows for ambiguity and incompleteness. Grabbing copies of things one might read is a way of deferring decision making. It’s like buying several books on a subject and then figuring out which one is most relevant, except that the books are really cheap, maybe a penny each. In a sense, each PDF has become a name, a bookmark, except that can be searched and read, just like the complete document.

    It’s a lot like the way you would put things into Endnote before reading them. Maybe you didn’t need them now, but you might in the future. Besides, there was a cost to determining which papers were the good ones and which were duds. If you had them in Endnote, you stood a much better chance of getting the ones you needed than if you had simply passed over them in the search results as ‘unlikely’.

    Of course, totally free and instantaneous access to papers might change things. For a long time, if one liked a song, one bought the record. Then, one downloaded the file. Napster opened a huge back catalog of music, so a lot of downloading was just about having the option to hear something, not necessarily actually hearing it. Then came things like Pandora and Spotify where one can listen to just about anything at will. The expensive thing is your time. If there were an academic Pandora, you might be wasting your disk space on PDFs, otherwise you are simply hedging your bets.


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