Research Strategies (abridged) - 9

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HomePreface1 - Taking Charge2 - Databases

3 - Information Fog4 - Periodical Maze 5 - Internet Research6 - Other Resources

7 - Case Studies8 - Learning to Read9 - Organizing Notes10 - Research Writing


Note that chapter order in the print edition will differ from the above.  The online version will retain the former chapter divisions.


Organizing Your Notes to Write your Paper

I have seventy-five pages of notes not counting the photocopy I left on the copier and the two pages which I think fell behind my desk. And I�ve got at least 7 journal articles printed off, but no notes for them. What a mess! How am I ever going to make an essay out of this chaos? Will there ever be meaning to my life?�

Yes, there will. Take heart. There is a way to organize your disastrous jumble of resources or the chaos of notes in your computer, no matter how incomprehensible it now seems to be.

I hesitate whenever I suggest �my� method for organization. What if your mind, heaven forbid, does not correspond with mine? What if I am totally out of touch with the logical categories you most enjoy?

Still, someone has to suggest something. Librarians, even though dull, are undoubtedly logical and thus better equipped than, say, Renaissance painters, to suggest methods of organizing information. I am giving you only one method (with some variations) because throwing too many methods at you can be confusing. If you don�t like this approach, ask your favorite professor or another librarian to suggest a better one.

My system can be called a �register method� of resource organization. A �register� is an index list of some sort that enables you to organize data. Consider an auto parts store. The parts are laid out in bins on row after row of shelves. The fact that the water system thermostats are next to the distributor caps that are next to the spark plugs is not nearly as relevant as the fact that each bin has a number on it.

When I walk in and ask for a thermostat for a 1949 Wuzzly Roadster, the parts person does not immediately proceed to the shelves and start looking. He or she opens a parts book or searches a database to find the bin number for that model of thermostat. Then it�s an easy task to find the bin with the right number on it and deliver the part to me. Here�s the point of the analogy: The rows of auto parts are your jumbled mess of notes and printouts. The bin numbers are codes you insert into these resources, such as page numbers and other symbols. The parts book or computer index represents an indexed outline by which you can retrieve your notes in a coherent way. This is how it works:

Your Notes, Photocopies and Printouts

Organizing your Notes

Some people write notes on 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 cards. This is, in my humble opinion, a grave errorSave your note cards for the next part of my system if you wish (though there are better ways), and produce your notes (if you are using print or printing computer notes) on normal paper, hole-punching them and keeping them together in a binder. Be sure, however, to follow a consistent method. As you begin notes on each book or article, be very certain that you include full bibliographical information in the notes (author, title, place, publisher, date, volume number, and page numbers).

When you have completed your notes for a particular item (even if those notes are ten pages long), simply leave a few lines blank, then start notes on your next book or article, being sure again to enter full bibliographical information first. (If you are using a computer, see the alternatives below.)

One of the important things you need to do is number the pages of your notes consecutively. If you have fifty pages of notes on ten pages, then number your note pages from one to fifty. (If using a computer, see below). If you have photocopies or journal article printouts, put them in the right places in your notes and number them along with the notes, even if you end up with 150 pages numbered consecutively.

9.1.2 Options for Notes Using a Computer

Some people prefer to print their digital notes onto paper. In this case, the computer is just an input device, and notes are handled as above.

If you are planning to retain your notes in their electronic format, you need to determine how you want to set them up for easy retrieval of the information you need. Unless you have a note organization program, it�s probably best to put all your notes into one file so that you can search them with only one search rather than several. Make sure you back up your information constantly if it�s all in one file. You�d hate to lose the whole thing. Your word processor�s �find� function (in the �edit� menu) will become a retrieval tool, though in the organizing process you may need to input some codes (see below).

Your Bibliography

As you gather sources, you have to keep track of them, including enough bibliographical information so that you won�t need to go on a desperate search for a lost date or volume number when you start writing your paper. The best resource for this task is a bibliographic manager like RefWorks, EndNote or the free online Zotero [More detail in chapter seven of the print edition]

Here�s the minimal information you need to include for a proper citation:

Book�author, title, city of publication, publisher, date.

Journal Article�author and title of article, journal title, volume number, date (e.g., (January 1999) or (2000)), and page numbers where the article is found.

Journal Article from an Electronic Periodical Database�everything listed under Journal Article above plus the date you accessed the article, and either the persistent link or the DOI, depending on what bibliographical style you are using. For example:

Badke, William. �Give Plagiarism the Weight It Deserves.� Online 31.5 (Sep. 2007): 58-60. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 26 October 2007. <>.

Conley, D., Pfeiffera, K. M., & Velez, M. (2007). Explaining sibling differences in achievement and behavioral outcomes: The importance of within�and between-family factors. Social Science Research, 36(3), 1087-1104. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2006.09.002

Essay in a Book�author and title of essay, title of book, editor of book, city of publication, publisher, date, and page numbers where the essay is found.

Reference Book Article�title of article, author if given (often abbreviation of author name is given at the end of the article), title of reference book, edition of reference book; and (sometimes) city of publication, publisher, date.

Web site�author (if given), title, publisher (if given), Internet address (URL), and date you most recently accessed the information.

Your Subject Index [More detail in the print edition]

Note taking and printout gathering is easy. Retrieval is hard. The biggest problem most students face is that they�ve ended up with many pages of notes and printouts, but now that they want to write the research paper, they can�t retrieve the data they need from these resources.

Let me suggest a method that will break the back of writing anxiety and actually save you time in the long run. Here are the steps:

  • Take a good-sized piece of paper and write your preliminary outline on it, leaving lots of space between each heading or subheading.

  • Determine a symbol to represent each heading or subheading.

  • If you are working with notes in paper form, read through your notes. Every time you discover data that is relevant to one of your headings in your outline, write the location (page number of notes) under that heading. In your notes, insert your symbol so that you can find the exact location of the data. (If this is confusing, see the example below.)

  • If you are working with computer files, type the symbols (%, #. %, or whatever) into the spots in your online file that are relevant to sections of your outline. The �find� function under �edit� in your word processor can then locate any symbol and its relevant notes any time you need them. Just remember to insert a space after the symbol so that the �find� function can actually find it.

For example: [example in the print edition]

Why go to all this trouble? Simply because it saves time and alleviates writing anxiety.

Thus, setting up an index to your notes before you start writing saves you having to re-read your material every time you start a new section of your paper. Besides, you are left with a warm and comforting sense that you actually know where you are going before you start. When was the last time you had a feeling like that?

Indexing your Notes for Larger Assignments [See the print edition]

[The print edition has a study guide and combined practice exercise/assignment at this point.]


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Updated July 31, 2012