I can’t believe other people don’t do this. (practical tips for academic researchers)

I have noticed that it is common-place for newly-minted PhDs to write a blog post along the lines of “what I wished I’d known at the start of my PhD.” This post will be in a similar vein, but there’ll be less of the “I wish I had known” and more of “This really helped” and “I can’t believe other people don’t do this.”

Mostly, I’m about to share some really basic, boring and practical habits that I formed very early on and which I am now routinely astonished to find are not universally applied by others in academia. They are mostly to do with literature management and avoiding plagiarism*.

*I’m not saying I have come across a lot of plagiarism: I haven’t. But I have come across many rather haphazard approaches to note-taking and literature management which make plagiarism mistakes far easier than they need to be.

The key thing is to be systematic and consistent. Choose a system and stick to it. Obviously this is easier if the system you choose at the outset turns out to be a good one. I am sharing mine with you because I have found it has worked well throughout the last 10 years of research experience, and I have not had to modify it massively in that time – if at all.

1. Save your downloaded papers and so on in a citation-style format; Name (date) Title.

Here’s a screenshot of one of my project literature folders:

I also save literature from specific searched in topically-discrete folders – so I have an ‘environment&religion’ folder for example. I sometimes keep journal-specific folders for when I’m looking into whether a particular journal might be a good fit for a paper I’m thinking of.

It is so frustrating to be dealing with an online group DropBox folder, for example, where different project partners are uploading papers with the massively random filenames that I have frequently come across. It seems many people just save PDFs with the numeric code they get downloaded with. DON’T DO THIS. Not only does it irritate other people when you share files, you’re likely to not know what it is when you go looking for it again.

2. Immediately save your papers to a reference manager as well as on your personal drive.

I recommend Mendeley, mainly because it’s free and the functionality is really good. I know many research institutions and universities have professional licenses with other reference managers, but there is no guarantee you will be at that institution for the rest of your career and moving citation managers is a Pain In the Arse. Sign up with a non-university email and keep your personally-curated library for ever.

A reference manager makes so many aspects of research and writing So Much Easier.

  • You can search with key words, and find all the papers you have saved that reference ‘Foucault’ or some other thing that seems vitally important at that present point in time.
  • You can download a PlugIn for Microsoft Word that means you can reference as you go when you are writing something. You just click on ‘Insert Citation’ and search in the dialogue box that comes up which links directly to your Mendeley. Or EndNote, or whatever. Then you can also automatically create a bibliography that will automatically update as you add or remove citations.
  • You can set which citation style you want to use in Mendeley, so when you cite in Word is automatically populates the field in the correct manner.

DO This. You will not regret it.

3. Take VERBATIM notes. With page numbers.

Do not paraphrase when taking notes from an article or book. It is beyond helpful to know that your notes accurately portray what the original source said, as then you can choose later on whether or not to paraphrase or directly quote. If you paraphrase when taking notes, there is a very real chance that you may later re-phrase the point back to a form that too-closely resembles the original, thereby inviting yourself to accusations of plagiarism.

When we write, we typically think carefully about the best way to put a point across. The original author definitely did this, and if you are familiar with their work, or perhaps with the field in which they work, there is a good chance that your re-phrasing of their point will not be as original or unique as you think.

I also keep careful track of whether a quote that I’ve noted goes across two pages. I write [page-break] exactly at the point where there is, you know, a page-break. It quickly becomes an easy habit that does not detract from the typing flow.

I use a digital notebook programme that comes with the generic Microsoft Office package. It’s called OneNote. I’m a bit… evangelical about OneNote. You can log into a cloud version of it that automatically updates whenever you are connected to the Internet and access you notes from anywhere. I title each page with a bibliographic reference copied directly from my Mendeley.

Here’s a screen shot:

It’s just so…. Beautiful.

You can search in your notebooks for specific terms, and then find quotes about a topic that you’re currently writing on really easily. And then, because you know that you always take accurate and verbatim notes with page numbers, you can just Copy&Paste into your current working document. Bliss.

I don’t know if these tips will be of interest to anyone else, but I feel that they have been so helpful to me over the years that if just one other person goes “oh cool, that’s a good idea” then it’s been worth writing this.

Go forth! Be productive! Peace out.

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