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What’s the best way to organize my research?

The following post is partially based on a blog post written by Heather Campbell at Brescia University College which is no longer active.

As the old saying goes: “for every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned”, this is as true for research work as it is for most other tasks. In this post, we’ll explore the various facets involved in organizing your research, from setting a proper reading schedule, to covering note-taking and publishing.

Step 1: Reading

Research is all about reading, reading and more reading. As Isaac Newton reminds us, to see further than others, one needs to stand on the shoulder of giants. However, in order to do so, one first needs to understand the work of those giants in order to stand on their shoulders. Understanding the research field is of paramount importance. Back in my days as a PhD student, I was told to look at it in terms of a landscape. Understanding your field is akin to walking around a great landscape, all the hills, valleys and mountain tops represent the various authors who have been prolific and influenced those fields. The mountain tops are those who’ve been cited more than others, and the deep valleys represent those unfortunate souls whose work has been discredited or otherwise dismissed. The more you read about your subject, the more entrenched you’ll become and after a while, you’ll be able to recognize how to position a paper just by glancing at the references.

So how do we form a structured reading strategy? There is of course no one-size-fit-all but there are some good tips to consider, namely:

Start out with some preliminary reading. Skim through the most popular and well-cited papers in the field that you’re examining. Initially, you’d want to skim through a range of various papers to establish the dominant authors in the field.

Pick out the most influential authors in your research area and read their most popular papers in depth. To understand the current paradigm, you have to know the foundational papers. Depending on the research area, these authors may be either contemporary or situated in history.

Always conduct your research with your final product in mind.  While reading through your papers, consider potential “subheadings” that may be useful for your own research, and make sure to save sections/paragraphs/figures that you find useful and relevant to your own work.

Use a research journal / a research plan. To see how far you have ventured, it is necessary to be aware of where you were when you started. By keeping a research journal, you can keep track of the search phrases you’ve used and keep detailed logs of which keywords yielded useful results. To read more about how to construct a research journal, see this post by Nappa Valley College.

If you do start to find useful stuff…

2. Write your notes

Organize your paper by listing potential “subheadings” or sections.  There are various different ways of doing this:

Draw out a working outline: map out some potential subheadings or sections that need to be included in your paper? What is the overall argument that is being made? What are the type of sources that support or critique that point?

Color code:  assign different colors to your respective subheadings.  Use a highlighter to highlight sections in the text of your articles that are useful. (This feature is upcoming in the new version of Avidnote – stay tuned!), you can also vary the font color to organize your notes and papers.

Use different notebooks: On Avidnote you can do this by creating a notebook and then assigning your notes to that notebook. There are different ways of doing this. You can categorize notebook by category (e.g. empirical studies, qualitative studies etc) or by their status (papers I’ve read, papers I’ve already cited, papers I need to look into etc).  If you’re not using Avidnote, you can mimic this by creating different folders on your computer and do it manually. Either way, make sure you keep things together!

Keep notes on why your sources are helpful. It’s good to remind yourself why a particular paper is useful, how does it connect to your own research, and how may it support/critique your own findings?

Summary of papers: Make a short summary of the papers that you’ve found to be useful. Include the paper’s most important contribution, and how it relates to your research, as well as any potentially interesting figures or tables. You can do this on Avidnote by using the template for summarizing research papers.

Create annotations: whenever you read an interesting/useful section in a paper, make sure to leave an annotation that highlights that sentence. In the corresponding note, jot down why that sentence was important.

Use your own words: Always write your notes using your own words. You need to make sure you’ve understood what you’re reading. When you write it down using your own words, it may be conducive to memorization and helping you to learn better.

Save everything and BACKUP. Always good to save everything you write.

Create a working bibliography using Zotero. Why Zotero? It’s open-source for one thing, and we’re currently working on integrating it with Avidnote as well. Add new resources that you find to your online Zotero bibliography as you dwell deeper into your research.

Are you ready to start writing…

3. Start writing.

Write in a non-linear fashion.  You shouldn’t begin by writing your abstract, in fact, the abstract should often be the last thing that you write (as it provides an overview/summary of your paper). The same thing goes for your entire paper, write each section in whichever order seems most suitable. If you’re collecting data, you may want to start writing your methodology. If you’re already familiar with the area, you could begin writing you theoretical frame of reference. However you wish to begin, make sure to remember, that the writing process is iterative!

Iterative writing process

Seeing as the writing process is iterative, this means that your paper should be treated as a living organism. At times, you may want to update your introduction if you discovered something that needed to be added. Likewise, your results may show you some weakness in your methodology, which should make reconsider changing the methodology and its corresponding section.

Remember that your first version is always a draft, rarely does a masterpiece come from a draft! Treat it as such, and don’t be afraid to write down sentences that haven’t been clearly thought out. You’ll have time to revise that once you’ve written down a rough draft. See this old post of mine for clarification on this point.

If you’re working on the same research project for an extended period of time, you may notice that you’ll get new ideas when you’re walking around or doing mundane tasks, make sure to jot down these ideas on your phone lest you forget them.

There are different apps/software that make a lot of these steps easier (refer to Avidnote for note-taking and Zotero for referencing). If you prefer to use digital tools, the above apps will be useful to you. If you prefer to still take notes by hand, you may consider something like the Cornell Note-Taking system to organize your notes.

So what system works for you? Feel free to leave a suggestion or comment below!

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