I know I know this, but my instructor won't accept (My Brain, 2012) as a citation.
December 5, 2012 6:36 PM   Subscribe

How can I become better at remembering references to cite in my academic writing? I know how to use APA style, but when I need to write I can remember theories and details, but not where I actually READ those theories. HALP!

I'm working on my PhD, which means lots and lots and LOTS of reading, then lots of academic style writing about everything I read. The nature of the program means that we have to keep adding to our knowledge and eventually be able to synthesize and use all the stuff we've learned through the whole program. So, an answer to a discussion question would reference not only the theories we learned in the current class, but ideally would tie in theories and details from all the previous classes.

I know how to cite and reference what I'm writing (we use APA style), so that's not the issue. What I struggle with is remembering who said what so that I actually CAN cite it. For example, I recently had to write about management vs. leadership(...is it different? Same? How would I approach blah blah blah...). Since the class is about management specifically I knew where to find the cites for what I wanted to say about that (because I had just read it). But the leadership theories I wrote about was learned in more than one class over the course of this past year. I knew the information, I just didn't know who said it or where to look in my past books to find a suitable reference to use.

Since I'll be taking comp exams in a year where I'll have to write similar answers with limited time and resources, I need to get better at this. How can I remember details about who said what theory, and where I read it? Am I missing a study skill, or just bad at remembering? What can I do to improve?
posted by MultiFaceted to Education (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Offload your memory to a computer -- there's no way to keep all this stuff in your head. Keep notes or spreadsheets. You should definitely be using a citation manager like Zotero or Pages or Mendeley or EndNote etc. These programs all allow you to store a database of citations and annotate them. But personally I like to make spreadsheets, with columns like 'citation', 'topic', 'major argument', etc. You can also write mini annotated bibliographies for yourself if you like. There are lots of ways to do this and each person has a different preference, but the point is to write things down as you figure them out.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:44 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you just need a way of easily finding things again, rather than a way to improve your memory. Evernote has a tagging feature, so you could write a brief summary of the item you're reading, including whatever relevant info you would need to help you cite it or find it again, and then tag it with whatever keywords make sense.

Later, when you're writing your paper on management theory A, you could search for all your notes tagged with "management" and "theory A" and hopefully narrow down your search to a few possible references.

That all said, I'm not a PhD or any kind of research guru, so YMMV.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:49 PM on December 5, 2012

A further strategy - I use a lot of articles. I save as pdfs with author names, and the title in the title. There's some allocation to folders, mainly in line with writing projects. I have a Mac and then use the spotlight search (full text across files), using various combinations of keywords. This can be surprisingly efficient.
posted by carter at 7:15 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

When you read the material you're going to draw on, make notes. In fact, when you read any essay or paper or book chapter that is broadly within your academic interests, you should make notes.

This will have two salutary effects:
1) Writing things down will help you remember them. If you write a paragraph commentary on $dude's views when you read $dude's paper, you may remember more easily not just the views but their association with $dude.
2) Your notes serve as reference material. If you know you're looking for a theory on $topic, and you have an easily accessible filing system for your notes (for example, in Evernote), then you can just search for $topic and discover that $dude is the writer you're looking for.

This may be a hard discipline for you but the benefit is potentially huge. And, today, you don't have to be very organized to keep all of your notes forever. So notes you take today can continue to pay dividends for your whole career.

I read a pretty good blog post about this recently, from an academic insider, but I can't find it right now (somewhat ironically).
posted by grobstein at 7:17 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

A less technological way: Get a stack of 3x5 notecards. While you're reading through the material, and before you start writing, keep those notecards handy. When you read something, make one notecard with the full citation on it. Put a number in the upper corner. On a second (third, fourth, etc) notecard, write particularly interesting/useful quotes (one on each card), and write the number of the related citation card on the upper corner. Then, when you're writing, you'll have notecards to flip through to figure out where you remember that from.

I've used Evernote (sometimes Word) to do something similar: Put the full citation of whatever you're reading up top, then take notes about what you're reading underneath the citation (with page numbers for reference). Then you have something to skim when looking for where you got that idea from.

Good luck!

(on preview, what grobstein said)
posted by evolvinglines at 7:19 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

grobstein is exactly right. If you're not sure about the utility of an article or book, a few sentences summarizing its argument and major themes is enough, but if it seems potentially relevant, write yourself a serious paragraph or two. I also find it useful to type up any quotations that seem relevant or important to me, ideally in a way that gives me a sense of how they fit into the overall argument. This can both be useful as a reminder of what I've read, and generally makes it much easier to find specific passages to cite once I get around to writing about something. I'm pretty good at remembering the basic gist of articles, but having passages readily to hand makes writing go much more quickly.
posted by dizziest at 7:23 PM on December 5, 2012

When I am serious about remembering articles, I use a series of annotations to help guide future me to the points I wanted to go back to-- bibliographic notes to follow up on, questions, commentary, etc. If I am feeling especially productive, I'll add notes on the front page about the general themes and thoughts after reading it-- more keyword based than a paragraph, but something a little more advanced than just circling bits. I don't currently use a paper organizing system, but I really should. I rely a lot on keyword searching, and on folders that are loosely topical.

My system for books should be more computer-based but it's not-- I rely heavily on annotated post-it notes that serve as a guide. So a book might have a series of eight postits with page numbers and then keywords on the front (as well as specific passages tagged on the inside with my notes on more post-its) for ease of finding specific passages. If you're having a lot of trouble associating authors with ideas, you may find it helpful to sit down and actually to write/type out a more comprehensive set of notes for each source, or to do more overall literature/annotated bibliographies.

(If you're just trying to find a specific paragraph...Google Books/Scholar can be such a useful friend.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:49 PM on December 5, 2012

I do referencing and bibliographies for a research psychologist -- she has years of experience, but she still has to cite things as "Get Ref for X" sometimes. So that's what she does - sticks in a note saying "Need X ref" (often highlighted in a lurid colour) and then looks later for good references on whatever that is (e.g. role theory, or content analysis, etc) either in previous things she's written or by just googling/lit searching.
posted by jb at 8:34 PM on December 5, 2012

Like grobstein says. I tell my students to annotate while reading, preferably in a form that later can be used with just a few corrections for any "previous research" section one may be obliged to write. Where to store this is entirely personal, but I find that good searchability is a great asset.

If you're into databases, Bookends has the possibility to add tons of text and links and stuff to every single reference (as has Endnote, if I'm not mistaken). It's handy to have everything in one place, the reference and the comments. However, I'm actually just using a Scrivener project: Every book I found important gets a folder with a short summary and comments.

I started this after finding a pile of hand-written notes about a book I was reading and didn't know I already had read...it happens.
posted by Namlit at 12:00 AM on December 6, 2012

I'm using mendeley and it has tagging functions, but I've found I don't need tags much --- because it will search my PDFs for anything I'm looking for. I'm working on comps now - the topic is generally "social class" but I might want to write a section on "privilege" or "intersectionality" -- I just put the term in the search box and up pops all of the PDFs that mention that term. Or I can input a phrase. Or an author name (bonus, I get anyone who cites that author too).

This has been invaluable.

I keep all the PDFs in a file in Dropbox labelled "PDFs" and importing them into Mendeley is super easy. It'll even go looking for PDFs I haven't imported yet and ask me if I want them in mendeley.

But also -- do take copious notes. You'll never feel like you're starting a paper from scratch.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:30 AM on December 6, 2012

If you're reading a lot of articles in a couple of databases you can set up a personal folder in each one that will store citations. The reference librarian at your university can show you how to do this. She/he might also be able to show you how to use Zotero, EndNote, or other reference management system.
posted by mareli at 5:40 AM on December 6, 2012

Take notes on what you read.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:54 AM on December 6, 2012

Use reference management software - picking one will come down to cost, ease of use, and personal preference, and depending on your field, compatibility with your co-authors. Your university library's reference librarian will be the best starting point for helping you pick one if you have not used such software before. This is because they will let you know which ones the library provides support for, as well as the ones you may be able to obtain for free through your university.

I use Bookends on the Mac, but have used Endnotes and BibTex (using JabRef on Windows, BibDesk on the Mac) for collaborative projects.

I've found I don't use tags, as I can simply search in the reference management software. I don't even keep extensive notes in them, but I do put in comments along the lines of "Good reference for X theory" "Data analysis section has good application of method Y", etc.
posted by needled at 7:56 AM on December 6, 2012

I'm a librarian who trains people on the use of EndNote, Zotero, and Reference Manager. I agree that you should set up a time to talk with the appropriate trainer in your library, they are skilled in assessing your workflow (or helping you develop one) and setting you up with the right kinds of tools--whether software or paper-based.

I personally love EndNote, but Zotero can be very helpful if you're moving between computers a lot or need to reference web-based documents like blogs or news articles that might not be indexed in databases. You just click a button and it can save the whole page or siphon off the metadata and save it for you, and you can annotate it from there. Seriously, talk to your librarian (or MeMail me!), they can definitely help you out.
posted by zoetrope at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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