Managing and organising literature

Our last post explained how to optimise your  literature searches and how to remain up to date with the most recent publications. Once you’ve found a bunch of texts of your interest, you should also take care to make sure you organise them well so you can find them with little trouble, this will ensure a smoother writing process. Here are some tips:

Well, actually, there is just one tip: have one database. If you’re new to this, here’s how the database should look like:


Setting up a database:

  1. Have only one database. It will make your life much easier and means you do not have to keep opening different programs or documents to find the article you have in mind. If you’re writing several papers at the same time, just create categories that make the entries in the database easy to track and filter. You could also add keywords according to the topic,  however use them consistently throughout the database avoiding synonyms and alternative spelling (is it well-being, wellbeing or well being?). Also, why not merge your literature database with your colleagues’—perhaps something they found on the subject is also of interest to you and vice versa.
  2. Use programs to create a database. Next to a simple spreadsheet, there are a number of programs and sites you can use to set up your database (see an introduction of two of such programs). Next to such programs, you could have a look at sites that have similar features, e.g., CiteULike—some of these also have social networking features allowing others comment the sources you have pinned down.
  3. Interlinking. Link the entry of the database to the piece of literature. Save all your literature in one well-organised folder. Using a consistent storage system may be very helpful—decide where to keep the literature. You can introduce a categories’ system where you indicate the part of the paper (or theory) each source belongs to (general theory, theory A, theory B, methods etc). Then assign this category to all relevant copies in your folder and to matching entries in the database. Some programs allow you to create hyperlinks which would open up the article in just one click.

Using the database

  1. Make comments for the entries you have in your database. You can mark down the pages that you found particularly important, other papers that the current one is tied to and other bits of information you find helpful. In addition, you can rate articles’ according to their relevance to your work to establish a system of which sources should be read first. You can save the comments directly to your paper (together with the reference, of course). If you do, the note should be independent from the context of the article—you don’t want to dig the paper up again to understand your own remarks.
  2. Process each entry carefully, i.e., know what’s in your database. Surely, the only point of having a database is that you know what’s what. Sometimes, reading an article once is not enough for you to remember its content, relevance to your work, weak points, and other works it relates to. Therefore, it might useful to leave articles you have read to sit for a day before returning to them. The fresh look at the paper may help you to position this source better in the array of literature you are building up. After you have returned to the paper, summarise its key points, organise, and save them to be found later.

Given you keep up with the above described procedure, you’ll have much less trouble finding the piece of literature when you need one. Simply open the database and type in the keywords. You’ll then see all the other articles it is connected to and also, what kind of comments you made on it. This means you do not have to stop your train of thoughts when when you’re all caught up in writing: a simple search will get you to the detail you needed to check up before you could continue typing.

About the author

Maris Vainre