With my chair’s approval, I have begun working on my literature review, and one of the first questions I came up against was how to organize all that “stuff”.  The literature spans a wide variety of media; journal articles, think tank reports, books, popular media articles, etc.  How do you keep all that stuff straight?

Ideas from those who had completed their dissertations

When I polled my writing group, the two that had finished immediately talked about how they started with the most general and went to the most specific.  That wasn’t what I meant.  My concern was more fundamental then that; how do you keep all the notes straight, find references again when you need it, and assist yourself in remembering what you’ve read?  And how do you do it as you go along, as opposed to after the fact?

One person in the writing group admitted:

My primary organizational system was (and still is) “piles” of stacks of readings all over the place – I didn’t use refworks or any other computer program for organizing things. I would try to organize a summary and highlight main points on a piece of paper attached to each article. But I’m mostly a margin writer. I attached an article that was really helpful for me in getting started.

That would make me CRAZY!  But she was done and I wasn’t, so it was at least worth thinking about.

Another was a bit more organized:

The way I organized my readings was by topic. I numbered each hard copy and then put them in a big binder with a tab for each article. You can see that in the written document that the article’s number appears by the title, but under the heading of the topic

She then wrote up an annotated bibliography, reorganized each item in a word doc to the flow she wanted, then wrote the review.  Better, but I am more technologically-minded then that and couldn’t imagine flipping around through a word doc to find the articles and reorganize them.

Technical tools

I knew in advance I would be keeping my references in Zotero;  I have been nothing but impressed by the software. (If you agree, there is an anonymous donor matching donations $2 per $1 you donate.)  However I wasn’t inclined to try keeping all my notes in there – I wanted something that would give me more visible space and a way of organizing not just within an article but across articles.

I went back and reviewed a couple of articles I had saved that I thought would help.  I previously referenced this post on Mind Mapping the Literature Review, but in rereading it determined that for it to be useful you had to be very familiar with the literature in question.  More recently, I ran across the idea of using a wiki to organize thoughts and materials.  This idea seemed promising, but I don’t know wiki software and was concerned that I might spend all my time learning the software, not working.  I was also concerned about backups, given that this is NOT something I’m going to want to redo it due to someone elses disk crash.

In the end, I found myself comparing Evernote and OneNote.  Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and I had to evaluate which features were more important for my work.  (Believe me, throwing “compare evernote onenote” into google will get you a LOT of responses and opinions, only some of which will match your own requirements.)

Key features I considered were:

Feature Evernote (free/$45)
OneNote (Office/$99.95)
Strong outlining I couldn’t even figure out how to make a bulleted list, let alone outline. Yes
Tagging Stronger Rudimentary
Easy to move things around Weaker – you have to specify the type of content for a page. Strong – you can click anywhere and start typing.  You can mix and match content types.
Handwriting Recognition Only in paid upgrade Yes
Available  anywhere Yes – notes are syncronized to a central server. No except via VPN to my
home machine
Backups Unclear – I couldn’t find information on the web site for the services, and I’m not entirely sure what is kept locally vs. remote Backups are whatever I choose to do for my system.  I currently back my drives to a local external drive and to jungledisk, so I am confident that I could get my notes back if something bad happened

Of course there are other less critical differences.  Onenote has some excellent integration with outlook, but I don’t use outlook at home.  Evernote is stronger on web clipping, but for dissertation research that isn’t really an issue.  Onenote has just about everything you have in Word and other office tools, while Evernote is lightweight.

In the end I chose Onenote, primarily because it seemed that Evernote was too light weight for such a heavy topic.

The next step was to determine how I would use it.  Onenote has tabs across the top and another set (within a given top tab) down the side.  This allowed me to use the top tabs for the different sections of the dissertation (Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Findings, Conclusion).  Within the literature review section, each additional page is related to a piece of literature that has been given tags regarding the section of the review it relates to (can be more than one), the methods (quant, qual, mixed), and anything I may need to do with/about it (such as follow up on the author, find things that are referenced in their literature, or talk to my chair/committee).

Within each tab the first page is Structure.  I read about mind mapping all the time, but in the end I wrote an outline.  I guess I’m just a more linear thinker.  I took my writing groups suggestion of going from more broad to more narrow in each of the key areas, and tried to think of the questions I needed to answer to build my case for each.

Now comes the hard work – reading all the articles.