Navigating the endless world of knowledge and research can seem like a daunting task, especially if you are in the early phases of your research career. As early-career researchers, we usually need to try extra hard when we start digging into the topic and we want to make sure nothing important is left out. Information management is a skill which we all need to develop, and this requires time and dedication, but we all get better in it as we go ahead in our work.
In this post I will share some strategies for how to do this, which are based on my research experience with available digital and time-honoured tools, and which I hope other early-career researchers will find helpful.
To find papers which interest me, I usually start with major research databases like the Web of Science and Scopus. They allow me to filter the results, although they do not provide the full text. Still, abstracts can often be enough to decide if you need to get deeper into certain research. Note, however, that these databases are available for subscribers only, so make sure your university is one of them. As soon as the list of necessary papers for further work has been downloaded, you may work with it from home.
Google Scholar is a fee-free service that covers diverse papers, not only those indexed in the major databases. That is great for those who don’t focus on highly cited papers from top journals only. I find that even somebody’s blog post may bring valuable information or trigger research ideas, so why ignore such opportunities? Google Scholar is also very convenient if you want to know when an author publishes a new paper, or somebody cites the research of your interest. Just make sure you request email notifications.
Unlike the Web of Science and Scopus, Google Scholar provides links to full texts, including those that are available on other platforms, such as ResearchGate – an academic social network rich in authors’ versions and preprints of the papers you may need. Its important advantage is that it allows you to keep in touch with different authors, recommend others’ works, or ask questions regarding things you read or research.
Reading and taking notes
What is so special about reading and taking notes, you might wonder? First, if you are more into digital files, you may want to make friends with the review and comment function of the text processing software you are using. Or, if you are a paper lover as I am – with the pencil, highlighters and post-its.
Second, take notes of your ideas – both the author’s and those that came to your mind while reading, references that are worth checking, methodology and data, associations, doubts – anything related to the content you are reading.
Pro tip: don’t forget about the language and make sure you note down words, phrases, connections, or pretty much anything that draws your attention as good (or bad) solution which you could use (or should avoid) in your work.
Amazing Tara Brabazon from Flinders University in Australia suggests taking notes in an Excel file or similar software and including the following columns: bibliographic record, quotes from the paper, its paraphrase, ideas this passage triggers or half-ready sentences for your text. Then you’ll just need to take them into the text editor, like MS Word, for instance, add new paragraphs or chapters, elaborate on the missed passages, read it attentively once again, and voila, the draft for literature review is ready. (Make sure you check Tara’s YouTube channel.)
Referencing drives many researchers crazy. Sometimes it seems like it takes you so much time that you could have written another paper. Luckily, reference managers help with that. There are many of them: Citavi, RefWorks, Zotero and EndNote are some examples. Zotero’s advantage, for example, is that it is free and open-source. A great thing with most reference managers is that they support diverse reference styles, so that if a paper is rejected from one journal, it takes just a couple of clicks to update the reference style for another journal. This Wikipedia page is a valuable resource if you need some help in choosing your reference software.
I prefer Mendeley. Its browser plug-in and desktop application help to make referencing less than simple. Just make sure that all the necessary information has been automatically derived from the webpage or a .pdf file, and check the reference list up before submitting the paper.
When my text is almost ready, I take some time to “forget” about it and switch to other projects. After some days, I take a “fresh” look at it, as if it were somebody else’s and take notes. My notes are more like mind maps, with circles, arrows and crossing-outs. In doing so I assess the logic of the text and check if it includes everything I wanted to say. I admit I love editing, and you may get to like it as you keep practicing and see how significantly it improves your papers.
If the text is very important to me, I ask my colleagues or even friends outside academia to read it and provide me with the feedback. Last week I witnessed my colleague watching another person as she was reading his text. He spotted every furrow brow, pursed lip and amazed look, everything that reflected the person’s feelings, which was followed by the reader sharing what exactly made her make those facial expressions. I found that to be an intriguing strategy. Next time I’ll try that with my paper. To make it better.
Ulyana Zakharova is a Candidate of Sciences (PhD) in Linguistics and a research fellow at the Institute of Education at Higher School of Economics, Russia. Her academic interests are in the fields of online learning and massive open online courses, as well as management and teaching in higher education.