Bespoke Research Methods.
There’s plenty of discussion out there about reference management. The industry heavyweights include Endnote, Mendeley, Papers, and Zotero (here’s a handy comparison chart on Wikipedia for those interested). Back in 2005, when I started my doctoral program, I used Endnote. The program had recently enabled its library database search feature, but it was slow as molasses and crashy. I abandoned Endnote in favor of a word doc with a list of my references which I formatted one at a time. Tedium, at its best.
Then Zotero quietly arrived in Fall 2006 and I was smitten. The developers, academic researchers themselves, integrated the experience of research with the practice of collecting references. The developers understood that a large portion of academic research is performed on the internet and so they designed Zotero to import sources and capture web pages directly from the browser. Sites including university libraries, academic databases, and Amazon could be imported using Zotero. You can then export a collection or entire Library to a bibliography in your preferred format. Needless to say, I became a Zotero evangelist — I sang its praises to anyone who would listen (sorry husband).
It’s now 2011, I’ve used Zotero for 5 years now, and my references are a hot mess. There are duplicates, references that lack sufficient tags or have too many, pdfs all over the place, and I’ve simply forgotten why I have most of these references in the first place. But this isn’t Zotero’s fault, it’s mine. I forgot the cardinal rule of digital technology: technology is a tool, not intelligence.
Since I mistakenly thought Zotero was my own sentient reference assistant, “conducting research” became browsing the internet and importing everything that was remotely relevant to my project. When I was “done,” I had a stack of pdfs and library books that would go mostly unread and a messy list of sources full of random tags and incomplete information. Then, in the time between “researching” and acquiring the sources I forgot why these sources were important to begin with. I didn’t have a very good workflow and I thought Zotero was somehow doing it for me.
So what is “conducting research?” There are a number of great resources out there that offer great advice on how to do research (see below). Some work for me and others don’t, but in the process of reading and practicing, I learned my own method. Here’s a breakdown:
1) What is the research problem? Example: gathering a survey of the Industrial Revolution, specifically, any overlaps between the I.R. and caricature/print culture/conspicuous consumption/slavery. This is the question I should have in mind while performing my research. It’s my anchor and my primary tool for vetting sources.
2) Spend 30 minutes digging for 10 sources. This means browsing the internet and saving my findings in Zotero. Why 30 and 10? Because it’s a boundary. If I don’t find 10 sources in 30 minutes, there are two reasons: I need more time or there likely isn’t a lot of information on the topic (which is noteworthy itself). Plus, if I’m missing something glaring, I’ll find it later or a committee member will point it out to me.
2a) Be sure to note why each source is relevant. Which part(s) of the answer in 1) does the source inform?
2b) Tag each source with a keyword (also called “coding”)
3) Rank the sources in importance, skim, and take notes. How do I know how to rank? I go with my gut. (My “gut” is based simply all previous knowledge and research I have on the topic. Put another way, it’s an educated guess.)
4) Revise tags after skimming. I almost always have to do this because books and articles don’t necessarily give you what’s advertised, so to speak. Maybe the book is redundant but has a killer bibliography on the role of enslaved Africans in the Industrial Revolution, so I’ll tag it (e.g., “bibliography,” “enslaved Africans,” and “Industrial Revolution”) and move on to the next one.
5) Read through sources. Usually I have a chapter or two per book, or entire articles to read. I read closely, but with an eye for my research problem which can lead to skipping parts. This is my favorite step because the reading generates writing and ideas. This is where much of my writing happens.
It took me 5 years to come with this system and it’s not the “best” or universally “correct” way to conduct research. It’s a bespoke method, customized for me and me alone. What’s your bespoke research method? Which reference management programs do you use?
Edit: word choice