“I would really appreciate your wisdom on the real practicalities of how you handle/manage/file the huge quantities of research you must see/read. I think many others would be interested to learn about your own research process, in order to improve theirs – how do you do what you do? I am trying to get a research project off the ground that covers both maternity care and law and I am disappearing under a mountain of research papers… What software do you use? How do you stay up to date on issues? Do you follow specific issues only or do you look at everything?!”
So yes, what a great question. But, while I will do my best to answer it (with the help of a few cat photos), I have to say that learning how to do this stuff is a journey, and quite a personal one at that.
My own systems are still evolving, for even after 25 years of dealing with health-related research, I’m still learning who I am and what works for my personality.
What I mean by this is that I am not a naturally organised person and I actually have quite a short attention span, so I have had to create systems that are fun, colourful and easy-to-use, and develop good habits so that I actually use them. I have friends who are more organised by nature and who find they need completely different systems. Also, the nature of what I need from a system has changed over time and, frankly, the nature and volume of the information that I access has changed massively over the past couple of decades. There is now MUCH more information out there than there was ten years ago, but most of it is noise and not that useful.
And then there’s the age thing. I did my PhD (and, in fact, three other degrees) without the aid of a smartphone. I know there are things I do that some younger people wouldn’t take the same approach to. And some of my processed have certainly changed over the years as I stayed open to new ways of working. But the interesting thing is that some of my younger students have also said they found benefit in some of my more ‘analogue’ approaches…
So here are a few of the principles that I use. A few of these are adapted from sections in 101 tips for planning, writing and surviving your dissertation. That book contains loads more on this topic and is written for students of ANY discipline. I hope you’ll find both this post and my book helpful.
See it as a multi-stage process
You may or may not have already thought about this, but the sourcing, collecting, collating and storing of research is a multi-step process. I have always found it easier to manage large volumes of reading/research by giving a bit of thought to directing the journey that each paper goes through before it gets into my final project (be it a dissertation, book or blog post) – or not, as the case may be, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
A midwife participant in a research project of mine a few years ago talked about casting out a large silvery net for information (which in this analogy she compared to fish). She talked about how you cast the net and sometimes you get lots of fish or information. At other times, you don’t get so much. Whatever you do get, she said, you next need to sort through it and decide what might be relevant. Then, you need to decide where you will put what you’re keeping, how you will keep notes and what you do with it. That’s a really important step, and it’s ongoing.
It’s also a bit messy, and in fact none of this is neat and tidy. Sorry about that. There are multiple steps, and they don’t always happen in the same order. There will be tangents and dead ends. Sometimes you’ll be racing ahead, and sometimes you think you’ll never reach the finish line. That’s all normal. Really bloody annoying, but normal. It’s important to learn to cope with that early on, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes neat and tidy. But hopefully this point also illustrates that there’s no one ‘right’ path here.
Many people ‘cast their net’ during a research project by means of a literature search, which happens at a fixed point in time. As you’re obviously aware, there is also value in keeping an eye on the literature in a number of areas on an ongoing basis, which is what I do. There are a variety of ways to do this, but one of the ones that I like the best for ongoing research is to identify the five or ten key pieces of literature in your field which relate most to the core of your work and then use the journal’s facility that will ‘notify me when somebody cites this article’. That should keep you updated on key developments relating to your core literature. You can also set searches on keywords and have databases report back to you (e.g. by email) when they find something new which cites the keyword you’ve set an alert on.
Another method I use is to subscribe to a couple of key journals and sign up to receiving the contents lists (electronically, e.g. via email alert) for a few others. Others use tools such as Google Alerts to look for information online.
You might need to play around with this as different tools and techniques suit different people and projects. I don’t use personally use Google Alerts because I don’t love Google and I end up with too much stuff that isn’t relevant. I would rather miss a few good blog posts than spend ages sifting through loads of poor quality ones. My focus is journals and professional information, and I change the lists of what I am watching quite frequently as journals and information services improve or deteriorate over time and with new editors or management. If something isn’t serving you, don’t be afraid to delete, unsubscribe or bin it. It might well have been innovative and brilliant ten years ago, but if it isn’t meeting your information needs now and has just become useless ‘noise’, then don’t waste your time/money. Same with people and organisations. If they’re no longer regularly posting stuff that interests you, unsubscribe. Otherwise, it’s just noise. If they get interesting again, you can sign back up again. Don’t allow FOMO to lead you to overwhelm yourself.
It’s also important not to be watching too much, especially online. While I do keep an eye on a few social media feeds of people who have similar interests to me, I keep that to a minimum. It’s amazing how much time you can lose doing this. Far better IMHO to pop into the library or onto an online database for an hour a month. You can do an updated literature search on each key area to check for new literature. That’s much better than spending hours scouring the bottom of the metaphorical sea bed for the one tiny fish that might be hiding among all the cat videos…
Use containers to manage the flow
The electronic holding container is simply a folder called ‘Holding’. I drop in PDFs, documents or any other kind of file. If I have plain text that I’ve copied from somewhere, I drop it into a note-taking application and pop it into my ‘Holding’ folder.
The physical one is a basket on my desk. Yes, that simple. Once a week, I gently relocate the cat and sort out everything that he has squashed.
DO note down the source or reference when you put something IN! You won’t remember later.
It all sits there until I go through it properly when I have time, one item at a time. I decide what I am going to do with it, which determines where it is going next. I might read it and decide it’s rubbish, in which case it goes in a bin. Or I might decide it’s pivotal to a particular chapter, blog post or book, in which case I pop it to another folder which holds possible content for that. If I think it might be relevant to more than one thing, it gets copied into both. To make this work, you must delete it from the holding folder once you’ve relocated it. And if you can’t find a use for it, it goes in the bin. Honestly. Otherwise you’ll end up swamped. If you need it later, you can search for it. More on that in the next tip.
There’s more detail on the sorting process in my 101 tips book.
Others may disagree but I think people generally find too much rather than not enough. OK, so if you find a paper on a really obscure bit of legislation that was misfiled in the only library that had a copy, then hang onto that. But what if your focus is on how we can better help women with autism to breastfeed and you come across a fascinating paper on waterbirth? Oh, and it happens to include the keyword waterbirth in its abstract. Well, I’m not going to insist that you throw it back, but I will tell you that you’ll still be able to find it if and when you decide to go back and do another PhD on waterbirth.
First, if it has the keyword waterbirth in its abstract, it will come up in a literature search. And second, if you remember enough about it to want to go back to it, you’ve probably remembered enough to use a search engine to find it again.
Failing that, you probably know enough people who’re interested in waterbirth that one of them will know what you’re looking for from your description. My point is that it’s better to keep your focus on what you need in the moment and to not worry about keeping things ‘just in case’.
In every study that I’ve undertaken, the articles that I have copied as ‘background reading’ have stayed in the background and have rarely been subjected to actual reading. It might be a form of procrastination. I don’t know…
Understand that software is a mixed blessing
“I used index cards to keep a record of references for my undergraduate dissertation (which was cool because it let me shuffle them about to organise my thoughts, but also very time consuming) and up-to-the-minute referencing managing software by the time I wrote my PhD thesis. (It was awesome, and then it crashed about ten days before I had to mail my thesis halfway around the world to my examiners…)” (Wickham 2015)
My story had a happy ending, because I was good at backing up. But it illustrates one of the three key downsides of using software for research. The other two downsides are that:
(1) you can spend more time learning the software than using it, and
(2) it is also possible to find that the confines of the system will inhibit your creativity.
As above, there’s no right way. I no longer use referencing management software, but do bear in mind that I’ve already written my PhD thesis, and I did use it back then. I cite just as many references in my books, but I use a different approach. Plenty of other people take both paths. Many lovers of reference management software use the packages offered free by their uni. I also know people who swear by Evernote, OneNote, Zotero and Mendeley. As far as I can see, they all have pros and cons, and it’s another one of those individual things.
At this stage of my career, I like to have a nosey through lots of different areas, but there are a few key ones that I look out for. Most are areas I have researched in the past that I want to keep an eye on. And some are topics I’m interested in and thinking of writing about. Your situation may be similar or different but, if you’re doing research, you may need to strike a balancing act.
I want to reiterate one thing that I said above, though. I don’t over-worry about whether I’m spotting everything as it comes out/goes past. Because, when I need to, I can do specific literature searches on my question and keywords. Serendipity – or the finding of something that you weren’t looking for – is a great tool in research, but most of what we need is found through a specific search.
Of course I can’t guarantee that you’ll get everything you want with these tips, but they have worked for me for two and a half decades and I hope they’ll help you too!
You’ll find loads more of this kind of information in my book, ‘101 tips for planning, writing and surviving your dissertation’. Good luck with your searches!
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