What’s the best way to organize my research?


When you’re writing an essay, keeping your research organized is a challenging task.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a “best” way: when this question was asked by a History student we didn’t have just one single answer.  The bottom line is you have to choose a system that works for your learning style and your writing habits.

That said, I put it to all of the library staff to tell me how they organize their research (we’re librarians! Of course we have systems!).  A few themes emerged that may help you out.

In the beginning…

  1. Do some preliminary reading.  Get a sense of your overall topic before really getting into the “heavy” research.
  2. Research with your final product in mind.  As you research, think about what “subheadings” or chunks you may want to write about (even though you don’t have all your information yet)?
    • If you need help with identifying your topic chunks, you could try Writing a Concept Map.
  3. Keep a journal/Write a research plan. Keep track of what databases you’ve tried, what keywords you’ve used, what didn’t go well, your thoughts and ideas…

Once you start finding good stuff…

  1. Organize by “subheading” or chunk.  There were lots of different ideas for how to do this:
    • Write a working outline: what will each subheading or part of your essay include? What will your arguments be? What sources support that point?
    • Ignore the interesting-but-not-useful stuff:  what are your essay’s subheadings?  What is your argument?  Read for that information, make notes on that information, and then throw everything else out.
    • Colour code (Who’s surprised that librarians do this?):  assign a different colour to each subheading.  Then use highlighters, post-its, tabs, or font colour to organize your notes and articles.
    • Create different folders on your computer  or different Word files for each subheading.  Or if you like to print everything else, have a different folder or binder tab on each subheading. The bottom line is: keep related things together!
    • James also organizes chronologically within each chunk.  As he says, “each article/book may have been influenced by those that preceded it; even in a very short time-frame” and you may find overarching themes or arguments that you may not have noticed otherwise.
  2. Write notes, in your own words, on why your sources are helpful. Again, there were different ideas for how to do this.  It’s important to also note that these techniques can be done by hand or on a computer!
    • Use cue cards: with the citation at the top (including page numbers!), write down the general ideas or concepts you want to use from that source.  You may have more than one cue card for each source, if you’re organizing your notes by subheading.
    • Create annotations: again with the citation at the top (and, of course, with the page numbers!), create a summary for each article/book you want to use.  Include the key parts/arguments/quotes that you liked from that source.
    • Write your notes in your own words: why is this source helpful for your essay?  How does it support your thesis?  Say it regular language in your research notes, rather than writing out word-for-word what the book says.
  3. Save your research. You won’t find it again.
    • Email your search results to yourself, print them, write them down by hand, use RefWorks/Zotero… anything but having to replicate your searches!
    • Create a working bibliography: add resources that you want to use to this bibliography as you research

When you’re ready to write…

  1. Write out of order.  You don’t need to write your introduction first and your conclusion last.  You can fix transition sentences and weird phrases later  (Editors note: I always write my introduction last!).
  2. Write down ideas as they come to you.
    • As you finish up your research, full-sentence paragraphs may come to you.  Write these down – even in your notes/working outline/cue cards, etc.
    • If you’re working on the same project for a few days/weeks, you may get ideas as you try to fall asleep.  Or in the shower.   Or when you’re talking to your mom.  Keep a notebook or your phone handy to write these down as they come to you (and then go back to sleep!).

There are software products that will help you with many of these steps (see our blog post on Zotero and RefWorks for examples) but many students still choose to do a lot of their organization by hand.  What system works for you? If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment below!

How do I cite properly?


First, find out which style your professor wants you to use.  You don’t want to miss a piece of information and have to go back and find it all – this is so time-consuming.  We have short guides online and in the library to help with formatting your citations.

While you research, make sure to record the information listed below – all citation styles use the same basic information, they just might change the order around, or which words are capitalized, and punctuation.  Writing down these details  as you go will save you HEAPS of time at the end of your paper  [Nothing is more frustrating than tracking down your citations after you’ve written your paper.]

For all resource types you’ll need:

  1. Author
  2. Title
  3. Year of publication

For books, you’ll also need:

  1. Place of publication (city name)
  2. Publisher
  3. Edition number, if applicable
  4. Editor(s) name(s), if applicable

For journal articles, you’ll also need:

  1. Journal title
  2. Volume number
  3. Issue number
  4. Page numbers

For websites you’ll also need:

  1. Website title (along with the webpage title you recorded above)
  2. The date you accessed or looked at the webpage
  3. The URL

You might need additional information if you’re citing a special kind of book or journal, but the above details will get you started.  I’ll include some example of finished citations below, although you’ve likely seen them before:

Solzhenitsyn, A. (2005). One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Bantam Deli.

Kernis, M. H., Cornell, D., Sun, C.R., Berry, A., & Harlow, T. (1993). There’s more to self-esteem than whether it is high or low: The importance of stability of self-esteem.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1190-1204.

There are products that help with organizing your citations (called citation management software), but my advice is to use whatever systems feels most comfortable.  I used to keep a print copy of everything, with the citation written along the top; a friend of mine would create an excel spreadsheet.

Feel free to bring in your citation questions to the library desk!

RefWorks and Zotero: What do they do?


Update: Western Libraries no longer supports RefWorks. They do have information and tutorials about how to best use the free citation management systems offered to students here.

Note: Western Libraries will have RefWorks until August 2015. If you are a Western RefWorks user, we recommend migrating your citations to Zotero, another citation management tool – it is free, and easy to use!

There are a variety of programs available to help you organize your research while you go: Western Libraries pays for access to one system called RefWorks.  I like to use the free Firefox plug-in called Zotero. While they do a lot more, these programs have a few major features:

  1. While you research, you can send resources’ citation information to RefWorks or Zotero.  This means that you’ll be able to find these references later and you don’t have to write them down as you go.  Usually (although there are some exceptions) this is a very easy process.
  2. You can create properly formatted bibliographies from the references you save with just the click of a button.  Most journal styles and citation formats are already inputted into Zotero and RefWorks (I’ve never had a problem finding the citation style of a Brescia professor).
  3. When you’re ready to write your paper, RefWorks and Zotero will also insert citations into Microsoft Word.  This really reduces the amount of time you need to spend worrying about in-text citations and bibliographies.

There are always cons to things that sound this awesome, especially when they involve technology.  My biggest issue with RefWorks is that importing citations isn’t always straight forward.  Sometimes it takes multiple steps and sometimes it messes up.  This means you still have to be diligent and pay attention while creating your list of references. Both Zotero and RefWorks do not necessarily format your bibliographies the way that your professors require, either.

This is just the tip of the iceburg about what these programs offer, so if you’d like to learn more you can visit RefWorks at Western Libraries and Zotero.