Keeping Track of Your Research

Keeping Track of Your Research

Doing research is often a long and difficult process. Even for relatively short essays, you still may spend hours in a library or at your computer combing through books, articles, and websites looking for those few perfect resources that will fit in your paper. For longer projects, the task is even more daunting, since you're required to keep track of dozens or even hundreds of sources and then fit them all together to form a cohesive picture of the research landscape. No matter how you do it, the process is tough, but keeping your research well-organized can help make the work a little less painful.

Why Stay Organized?

Creating and maintaining an organized reference system can eat up a lot of time, so why go to the trouble? The short answer is that putting in the extra work during the research process will save you a whole lot of trouble when you start actually writing your paper. When it comes time to use a particular quote or idea, having all your work in one place and indexed will allow you to find what you need quickly. Even if you've only got a few sources, having them catalogued will make the writing process that much easier.

Working Bibliographies

At the end of every research paper you'll include a bibliography, which is a list of all the works cited in your paper. But just because it comes at the end doesn't mean that bibliography should be the last section you complete. Instead, the bibliography should be the very first section of your research paper you start to work on. From the first book you crack open to the last website you read, you should keep a list of every source you look at. This list is what's known as a working bibliography. It won't be the same as the bibliography that appears in your paper - it's unlikely you'll need to cite all the texts you research-but every work that does show up in your paper will come from the working bibliography.

What to include

Keep a running list of all the sources you look at that includes information like title, author, publication year, and where you located the text. Having this information at your fingertips will make it easier to quickly find the works that you need when it comes time to start writing. This bibliography should include every source that you read. You never know which texts will end up being important, and it's much easier to cut things later then to spend time looking up sources you excluded because you didn't think they'd be important.

Reference management software

If you're working on a smaller project it might be easiest to just keep a running list on your computer, but anyone working on larger research projects will want to use a reference management software program like EndNote, Reference Manager, or Biblioscape. These programs allow you to keep all the bibliographic information for your references and can make organizations easier by storing keywords and abstracts. Most programs will also import citations directly from databases like JSTOR and EBSCO, which will save you a lot of time. And, as an added bonus, most programs will also format your references in the style you need for your paper, which will save you the trouble of having to format them yourself later. The three programs listed above can be expensive, but many schools will grant access to these or similar reference packages. Free version, such as BibDesk, Citavi (which is free up to 100 references), and Referencer are also available.

Annotated Bibliographies

When you're reading a book or journal article, it's common to think that you won't have any trouble remembering the content of the work later on. Just jotting down the name should be enough to jog your memory, right? But the more research you do the more likely you are to find yourself forgetting the details of a specific text or getting similar works confused, which is why it's so important to takes notes as you go. When you compile a list of the important ideas in each work, you'll avoid having to reread a bunch of texts in the future.
Most reference software packages will allow you to annotate your bibliography, which is one of your best weapons when it comes to attacking a big pile of research. An annotated bibliography includes a paragraph or two of summary alongside the usual information about title, author, publication year, etc. The annotation can include any information that's relevant to your work. You might just need to write a short summary of the work's main points, or you might want to go into more detail about how you plan to use this source in your paper and discuss how the work is related other texts in your bibliography.
You may also find that it helps you to take notes directly on documents and files. For example, you may jot down notes on a printout or highlight a pdf file. This can be one of the best way of engaging with a text, but just remember that later in your research you may end up searching through pages and pages of documents to find a specific note or quote, which is why keeping an annotated bibliography can be so helpful. Taking the time to annotate as you go will save you lots of time and hassle further down the road.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes are a great organization tool that can work alongside the bibliography to help you keep not just your sources but also your ideas in order. Created by an education professor at Cornell in the 1950s, a Cornell note is a page divided up into three sections: two columns on the top two thirds of the page, and a section that runs along the bottom third. In the right hand column, you should write the main ideas and quotes from your research sources, and the left hand column is for keywords and questions. Finally, in the bottom you write a short summary of the work.
When doing research, you can keep a single page of Cornell notes for each source or combine several sources on a single page. Either way, the idea is to make organization simple. Having the keywords easily visible on the left-hand side of the page makes it easy to find works about a particular topic, and the summaries on the bottom will help you look through lots of sources quickly. You can even keep this style of notes on the computer in word documents or notes software like Notability to make organization and searching easy.

Keeping Texts Organized

In addition to keeping the titles and content of your sources organized, it's also important that you have a system for keeping track of the actual texts themselves. In this day and age, it's likely that most of your research will be stored on your computer either as websites or as text files, which means you need to keep a running list of URLs and file folder locations within your working bibliography. After all the work you've put into your annotated bibliography, in the end it won't save you much time if you have to go back and scour the internet trying to find the original source.
If you like to keep physical copies of texts on hand, make sure they're organized as well. Keep documents in color-coded or labeled folders that are arranged in a way that makes sense for your project, for example by keywords or publication date.

Creating a Works Cited List

Once your paper is complete you'll be able to use your working bibliography to create a Works Cited page. This task is especially easy when you're using reference management software, since these programs will allow you to select the sources you want to include and then format them to your specification. If you're keeping your list as a word processing document, it's up to you to go back and pull the bibliographic information for all the works you cite in the text and format them correctly.

Getting Started

The key to doing good research is to get yourself organized before you crack open a single book. If you wait until you've already read lots of sources to start keeping track of research materials, then catching up is going to be pretty hard. So, before you open up your web browser or head to the library, take a few minutes to decide how you want to keep all of your work organized. Download reference management software or start a word document, and set up a system of file folders on your computer to hold documents. It can also help to create a bookmarks folder in your web browser to store URLs for each research project.
If you're having trouble or if these systems aren't helping you, remember that there are as many ways to organize research as there are people doing it, and with practice you'll find the system that works best for you.
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