Tools & Practices for finding, cleaning & organising references 1

Getting and organising good references is the key to creating good bibliographies for academic papers. This is a time consuming and effort-intensive process. This post discusses some tips and tricks to make this process easier and more productive

With the dramatic growth of information technology and the internet in particular, information in the hands of researchers has increased dramatically. We now have an opportunity to collect information at rates unthinkable one generation before us. But getting the best out of this information glut requires careful strategies for collecting, organizing and retrieving information. This article reviews a few tools and practices. I start with practices and follow it with some tools below.

Some good practices for managing references

Whether you are a graduate student or a professional researcher/academic, research is a long term process. Even in a span of six months one can end up with dozens of good references that would be of use to us. It is almost futile to go back and search for these articles from scratch months after we read or saw them. A system of collecting and organising references then and there will greatly increase our ability to use information we read. At the same time, collecting every reference that one comes across is bound to be wasteful. What we need is a system of information management that discriminates between different kinds of information.

Information management policy

Different systems of information management work for different people, and each of us should device our own. Last year, I devised the following policy that worked very well for me:

  1. Some things are better left to the net e.g. definitions, concepts, etc.
  2. Some useful pages in the net that I wish to get back to should be tagged.
  3. Some sites, pages should be collated – use HTTrack
  4. Some should be stored at once – useful papers, biblio items, etc.
  5. The rare few should be written down.
  6. Develop a naming convention for papers, including the file names for them.
  7. Develop a system of rating papers (levels and themes)

Though it looks elaborate, it is very simple in practice. Easiest of all is (1) – a regular surfer would have no problem in identifying this. At times I find useful pages, good online articles, etc. that I may or may not use. In any case, content is constantly added to good websites that there is no point in storing them off-line. So, when I find a good site or page, I immediately tag (strato 2) it using a social bookmarking tool. This takes less than 30 seconds for each website. Delicious provides a bookmarking script that I just click when I see a good site. In the page that appears, I give a one line description and give it a few tags (e.g. research, public-policy, data-source, etc.). When I want it, I just return to delicious page from any computer and search for the page using the tags.

Some pages are worth collecting (3) these are typically pages that will disappear such as newspaper content. Sometimes one can find a set of useful articles in just one page that we’d like to have a copy of. In these cases, I download these pages using an “off-line viewer” (I use HTTRak) or use a download manager (I use “Free Download Manager”) that enable me to collect these pages and store them in one folder for me – painlessly. Work involved in downloading pages in a file is at most one minute. HTTRak takes more time, but is useful for sophisticated tasks.

(4) is different from (3) in a sense that these are select important pages/papers, etc. that I wish to name and store carefully. These are papers I will need to review almost certainly at some point of time. Apart from storing a copy, I use a citation manager to record it. I also make brief annotations and categorize the article with a reasonably stable naming convention so that I can retrieve it. This does take some time, in my estimate about 30 minutes a week for an avid reader. But this practice is a great time saver.

In a rarely good case of an article or book, I write down specific quotes and detailed annotations that I am most likely to use at some point in future. I also use a voice recorder to take audio notes of books and articles (and my thoughts while reading them). Audio recording is much faster than writing down – but is not searchable.

A naming convention (5) for files on your PC that is consistent with the reference management can be of great help when we wish to consult these articles while writing papers. This is specially important since many journals provide articles as ‘images’ that are not easily searchable. In my case, I find it useful to name a file as *Year Surname – Article name*. Apart from matching in-text citations, this also helps me to sort articles by year. Note that it takes just as much time as any process of naming files i.e. no extra time.

Finally strategy (6) is one that that I have not been able to develop well. I have not hit on a systematic way of rating articles that I read and am suffering a little due to it. If I do find a way of doing it, I’ll promptly update this post! If you know of one, do leave a comment below.

Utilities for managing references

I have several other posts on citation managers and will not get into it here. But these utilities are costly business and may be unaffordable to most students across the world. Many universities in the US offer these services free to students, but this may not be the case in most places. There are at least two highly sophisticated referneces managers that are available totally free. These are CiteULike and Connotea. Both are free and are getting more and more integrated with each other. It is easy to store references from the web or academic articles in these two reference mangers. They also provide filters to many important bibliographic databases such as JSTOR. Needless to say, paid software mentioned above allow us to import references from a larger range of bibliographic databases – but CiteULike and Connotea are reasonably good and cover many important databases for students of social sciences. These reference managers also allow us to share references with others sharing our interests, if we choose to do so. The only drawback of these utilities compared to Refworks or EndNote is that they do not help us with the process of citation.

There are several other utilities such as software to visualise ideas, custom search engines, search history system in Google, bookmarking tools, etc. that could be used productively for information management. I will shortly provide links to these from this page. For the moment all of them can be found under the tag “Utilities for students“.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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