The introduction of tags in the latest Mac OS has re-ignited the debate on tags vs. folders (e.g. in Mac Power Users episodes 172 and 167). For the last three years, I have consistently used folders for project files and tags for reference files in academic work:
Project files – organize in folders
Project files are drafts of your articles or books, manuscripts under review and student assignments, grant applications, research reports, your lecture slides and scripts, raw data files, etc. They are linked to a project, a series of connected actions unified by a common goal and often conducted in a defined time period. While the project is active project files are frequently viewed, modified and shared. After the project is concluded, most of the project files go to an archive and are never needed. I find it logical to organize project files in hierarchical folders:
- each file can be clearly attributed to a specific project;
- while I am working on a project I need to frequently turn to the relevant set of files; it is thus very unlikely that I would forget where the folder is located or how it is called;
- I need to access the files quickly and frequently, so a link to all active project folders is in my Finder’s Favorites;
- I often share project files with collaborators (e.g. manuscripts with co-authors), by placing the project folder in the Dropbox;
- I often need to do group operations on project files (e.g. archive, transfer, duplicate), using Finder or Path Finder;
- I find it easy to organize academic projects in a logical hierarchical folder structure. For example, Teaching/Teaching 2012–2013/Energy Winter Semeter/ is a natural place to store lecture notes, reading materials and students’ assignments for a course.
Reference files – organize by tags
Reference files play a very important role in academic work. I have thousands of pdfs of academic articles and documents plus images, movies, plain text notes and presentations. If project files are frequently used in a short period of time, most reference files are rarely used for a long period of time. This means that it is much harder to remember where a particular reference file is stored. Moreover, each reference file usually relates to more than one topic and thus cannot be placed in a specific folder.
I therefore find tagging reference files very logical. True, I do not use these tags very frequently because it’s often easier for me to remember the title or the author of the article (and then Spotlight it). However, in some situations tagging does wonders. For example, recently a colleague asked for all my materials on Ukraine. I could easily find all the files tagged regions:fsu:ukraine including pdfs, notes, maps and bookmarks saved at different times (and in different folders).
There is one more consideration: time. Searching files using tags or Spotlight takes more time than opening a frequently visited folder. On the other hand, tagging is normally faster than filing in folders. Investing time in properly filing project files makes sense because they are accessed frequently. There is no point to waste time in choosing a folder for an infrequently accessed reference file.
Of course, some reference files are frequently accessed. For example, I have a collection of my articles each tagged by my publications. Though all of these are in different folders, I have a smart folder in finder which collects all these together.
Files which are both project and reference
Sometimes a file may relate to a particular project but also be a general reference. For example, reading materials assembled for a particular course may also enrich the general reference library. I both tag such files (as if they were reference files) and file them in specific project folders. When the project is archived I run a Hazel rule which copies such files into my reference files directory (so that they are not buried in the old project archive).