In my previous post about research, I rambled in general terms about the nature of the research process. In this post I’d like to shift the discussion to the nuts and bolts of the research process. How do I actually do research? How do I keep track of resources? How do I organize information? Those sorts of questions. If you don’t find a consistent way to keep track of your research, things can quickly get out of control. It’s always frustrating when you can’t find where you got a quote or when you can’t remember what it was you wanted to say about something. A good note management system can save you a ton of time and sorrow.
Having said that, it’s also the case that everyone has their own way of managing information. I learned this lesson my junior year of college. I came home one day from class, and something inside me snapped whenever I looked at my room and realized that my roommate Ryan’s half of the room was in total disarray, just as it had been for the past several weeks. Piles of clothes were everywhere. There were assorted stacks of paper and books laying all over the place. There was the usual stack of 24 packs of Diet Dr Pepper, the lone bastion of organization in an otherwise chaotic wasteland. I decided I’d tidy things up for us, so I just consolidated some of the stacks of papers and piles of clothes. I thought I was doing Ryan a favor. I went to dinner, then I came back later at night. To my surprise, I was greeted by an irate roommate. Ryan was fuming. He couldn’t find anything. What had I done to his meticulously organized heaps of madness? I had to apologize for cleaning up after Ryan. That’s when I realized that even seemingly disorganized people have some principle of structure to their lives. So, here’s how I do it. My way may not be the best way, but it works for me. Be sure to click the links to screenshots where I mention them, otherwise I’m not sure that this post will make much sense.
When I think about the challenges of managing information, there are really a few big things I’m concerned about. First, I want some way of keeping track of all the resources that I’ve read and the notes that I’ve taken on my reading. Second, I want to be able to access all of my notes at once, but I don’t want all my notes to be on one page. In other words, I don’t want to have to open ten different Word documents to look at the notes I’ve taken from articles on a given topic, nor do I want to look up and down a super long document to find my notes on a particular article. Third, I really can’t bear the idea of inputing every footnote on a paper manually, so I’ve got to have some software that will do that for me. Fourth, I want a system that is searchable, so that I can access my notes and thoughts weeks, months, and years after I’ve read a book or article. Those are the things I really try to accomplish through my information management system.
There are two programs that I use to keep track of my research: Microsoft OneNote , which is a part of Microsoft Office, and EndNote. EndNote is a bibliographic reference management system, and I use it for precisely that. Endnote allows me to download bibliographic information for resources through online databases (e.g., ATLA, New Testament Abstracts, WorldCat) or library catalogues. Then, it cooperates with Microsoft Word to produce properly formatted footnote entries and bibliographies according to the bibliographic style of my choice. Now, I could also call Endnote my daily disappointment, because I am continually running into limitations in the software. However, for a reliable bibliographic management tool, it does what I need it to do.
Perhaps the best way for me to describe my research process would be to follow the process for a single set of resources from beginning to end. Suppose I need to research an issue related to my thesis topic. I already know of a few resources I need, so my research would start by downloading the bibliographic information for the resources I know I need to read into Endnote. Then, I would place those resources that I haven’t read into a folder in Endnote so that I know where they are and I don’t have to search through all of my Endnote references to find them. If I had access to PDF’s of the full text of any of the articles, I would attach them to the EndNote entries. Here’s a snapshot of my EndNote setup.
Once I’ve got my list of resources in my Endnote folder, I would open up Microsoft OneNote. OneNote is where I manage every aspect of my academic work. In OneNote, you create Notebooks, which you can then divide with tabs, which you can then fill with pages. It’s all searchable, and it’s essentially like having a three ring binder with limitless tabs and pages for your research. I have a PhD Notebook, a Reading Notebook, and a Personal Notebook. All of these are simultaneously accessible. In my PhD Notebook, I have the following tabs: ‘Meetings’, ‘Training Workshops’, ‘Lectures’, ‘Seminars’, ‘Progress Log’, ‘Book Reviews’, ‘Thesis Project’, ‘Ideas’, and ‘Planning and Progress’. Whenever I go to a new meeting or workshop or seminar, I simply add a new page under the appropriate tab and take my notes on that page. Here’s an example of a page in my OneNote notebook.
My Reading Notebook is where I keep all of my notes for my reading organized. Whenever I have a new topic, I create a new tab. Then, I create a new page for each new work I read. If I’m reading a book, I create a new page of notes for each chapter, and I keep all of the note pages within a tab organized by alphabet on the right side of the page. Here’s a screenshot of that.
So, I go to my Endnote folder, select a resource to read, then create a note page in my OneNote Reading Notebook. As I read, I take notes, using OneNote’s highlighting tools and tags to make whatever notations I would like on my note page. When I’m done, I try to make myself write my own evaluation of the article at the bottom of my note page. Then, I go over to the ‘Thesis Project’ tab of my PhD Notebook and put down any ideas I have about my writing as a result of my reading, and I make sure to put a link back to my reading note page. This way, as I read multiple resources, I am gradually putting my thoughts together and organizing them in an easily accessible format. Here’s an example of what one of those pages looks like for me. It’s basically the place where I put down all the ideas that I want to make it into my writing on a given topic. When the time comes to write, I use the ideas and links I’ve compiled in my ‘Thesis Project’ tab to quickly and easily find the quotes and citations I need as I write.
Anyway, once I’ve read a resource and done all the note-taking and linking that I want to do with it, I remove that resource from my reading list folders, so that it just hangs around in the unclassified section of Endnote. This way I know that if something is in a reading list folder, I haven’t read it yet. I don’t need Endnote to have any additional organization, because I’ve got all of my reading and information organized in OneNote.
If a resource is a journal article or book chapter in an edited volume, I almost always scan the article and save it as a PDF attachment to its EndNote entry. This way I can access it later on. Because of copyright laws, you can’t just scan a whole book. But, if there’s one chapter of a book that I feel is really important or interesting, I’ll scan that and attach it to my EndNote library. I use Fox It Reader to read and take notes on PDF’s. It’s free and allows you to highlight, add comments, and search OCR-scanned PDF’s. Speaking of OCR (Optical Character Recognition), if you use an OCR reader to save PDF’s, you can search the text of the PDF or cut and paste from the text of the PDF. I do this with ABBYY FineReader 6.0 Sprint.
Finally, there are also programs you can use to search your computer for a quote or keyword or phrase if you really don’t know where you stored something. I use Agent Ransack.
So that’s my process of doing research and keeping it organized. I highly recommend Microsoft OneNote. It’s search function is incredibly useful, and it’s note-taking and organizational tools are intuitive and quite easy to use. Way, way better than trying to keep track of things with Word documents. Also better than my previous system, which was Zotero on Mozilla Firefox. If anything that I said above didn’t make sense, or if you have any questions about any part of the process I just described, feel free to ask questions in the comments section. Also, if you have any ideas that have worked well for you, please do share – I could use the help!
Below I’ve described my switch from Zotero to Endnote and Onenote for those who are interested, since Zotero is an all-in-one alternative to the system I just described.
When I was in seminary, I started using a program called zotero. Zotero is a free program that works as an add-in within Mozilla Firefox (a web browser). Through Zotero, you can download bibliographic information to books, book chapters, journal articles, dissertations, etc. In fact, to download information from a database or library catalogue, all you have to do is click a little icon on your web browser whenever you come across something you want to add to your zotero library. You can also create folders to organize your references, and you can attach notes, pdf’s, documents, and whatever else you like to each reference. Zotero is a great resource. It’s easy to use. It can help you stay organized, and it can save you a ton of time with references. Also, your zotero library gets backed up on zotero’s server, and you can load it easily onto another computer or access it from anywhere.
During my ThM thesis, I really liked almost everything about Zotero. However, there were a couple limitations to Zotero that became increasingly annoying over the course of my research project. First, the note-taking interface for Zotero references is relatively rudimentary. You can’t do a whole lot in your notes on resources. So, while it is convenient to have all your references in one place with notes attached to each reference, zotero kind of forces you to be a lousy note-taker. Still, I liked that I didn’t have to save and open a separate word document with my notes for each resource that I read, or else place all my notes in a single mega-document that would have been a nightmare to navigate. Zotero made my notes manageable but plain. An upgrade over Microsoft Word all by itself, but still not optimal.
My second frustration with Zotero was its footnote output limitations. The bibliographic information that Zotero downloaded was nice, but it also needed quite a bit of cleaning up. Also, Zotero’s integration with Microsoft Word for things like footnotes and bibliographies just wasn’t very convenient. If you wanted to add anything in between two references in a single footnote, you were basically out of luck. I got pretty frustrated with trying to get my footnotes to look right and stay as I wanted them with Zotero.
So, searching for better Word integration and a more flexible note-taking apparatus, I thought about switching away from Zotero after my ThM thesis. Then, this summer my friend Aaron, who is working on a PhD in education at Ediburgh, showed me how he keeps track of his PhD work through Microsoft OneNote. Since I already had OneNote on my computer, I decided to play around with it a little bit, and I really liked what it could do. That took care of the note-taking problems with Zotero. Then, I decided that I would get EndNote to take care of my bibliographic references. That’s how I went from Zotero for everything to OneNote and EndNote. The end.