Luther's last will and testament, Lutheran Archives, Budapest

Writing Research Papers and Theses

John Roxborogh

Keeping track of your research

Research students develop their own systems for keeping track of their sources documents and writing. What you do will depend on your technology and the scope of your research. The culture of research changes over time. It is important to be aware what others are doing in the university, seminary or college where you are located.

It is also important to track your time - that is also a resource.

The purpose of keeping track

  • Dealing with the fear of losing information that we have found
  • Being able to locate information later on
  • Accurate citation
  • Compiling a bibliography
  • Being aware of what we are doing
  • More efficient use of time

Know what your present task is and why you are doing it

One of the most helpful things you can do is to be able to name the task you have in hand, and be able to explain its purpose.

Keeping track of time

Most people don't need to do this all the time, but many improve their time management by occasionally doing a time-tracking exercise to identify their most productive times of the day. There are apps (like Timesheet  for Android) or construct your own spreadsheet using column headings such as:

  • Date (format to show the full date including the name of the day)
  • Task (what I am doing)
  • Purpose (what do I want to learn or achieve)
  • Time estimate in hours (to help plan future tasks)
  • Progress unit - how many pages read, words written etc.
  • Start, Finish, and Completed
  • Rate (units per hour - create formula dividing time taken in hours by number of units completed)
  • Start time (hours:minutes, eg 9:00)
  • Finish time (hours:minutes, eg 10:30)
  • Time used (minutes)
  • Time used (decimal hours, ie minutes/60)
  • Total hours (create a formula in the cell to add the time used to the previous total and copy this into the cells below)

Leave a blank row after each day and start the total hours again so you can compare hours per day. Other columns can be added for more detailed analysis of time of different sorts of tasks.

Identify your types of sources

One of the major changes in research culture has been the shift from photocopies to pdfs. However copies are made, types of sources may include:

  • Audio recordings (mp3 and others)
  • Blogs
  • Books and articles in academic journals
  • Electronic books downloaded to your computer (Kindle, pdfs)
  • Electronic books on-line (eg Google Books)
  • Emails
  • Field-notes of conversations and interviews
  • Manuscripts in archives
  • Webpages

Identify markers or tags

How to classify and file information has involved people in whole life-times of philosophical reflection. You may deepen your understanding by thinking through some of those issues, but you also need something which will work from the beginning and not just when you have become familiar enough with the subject to identify key themes and organise the chapters of your write-up.

Typically articles for refereed journals now need to be supplied with tags when they are submitted for consideration.

Basic markers

  • Author
  • Year
  • Title
  • Key words

Software that helps

  • Bibliographic Software: Endnote or Zotero (free)
  • Mind-mapping: X-mind (free version)
  • Desk-top search engine: Copernic (free version)
  • OneNote (part of Microsoft Office)
  • Evernote (free)

Bibliographic software is as important for keeping track of information and research notes as it is for standardising references and bibliographies. These are distinct if overlapping functions.

Where to put stuff in your computer, on a back-up, and in the cloud.

It can be helpful to create a new working file each time you update the paper or chapter you are writing. Have a folder within this folder for each writing project, and each major topic.

  • Cloud services can be seriously helpful.
  • Dropbox (check its backup copies from the web)
  • SkyDrive
  • Google Drive

Have a major folder for all your academic work which can be backed up frequently and independently of your computer documents as a whole.

Use your desktop search engine to locate subtopics and find where you have put stuff.

Processing material where you have an electronic copy already

Convert to pdf or word and save it to your computer in a topic file.

It can be helpful to rename the file into an author date or other regular format. For example: Keyes, Charles F (1996) Being Protestant Christians in Southeast Asian Worlds JSEAS 27(2) 280-292.pdf

Pdf files may be "drag and dropped" into a short-cut to Firefox.

After Firefox opens the pdf Zotero can "create a new item from the current page" which is a copy of the pdf stored in its own files.

Zotero will index the contents of the pdf. Searches will look at what is in the document, not just words in the title or tags. The entry will be given the name of the file or whatever you create (say in author, date format). A bibliographical citation entry still needs to be completed manually or downloaded from elsewhere.

Use a desk-top search engine to find it when you can't remember the author or title. 

 Zotero can create a bibliographical entry directly from Amazon websites. If a book can be searched and read online, then you can read online while you make notes in Zotero or OneNote.

Example of taking notes in Zotero from Philip Jenkins, The next Christendom.

Sorting out your thoughts

Use mind-mapping software such as X-Mind to sequence ideas from brainstorming.

Many thanks to Chris Joll and Lynne Baab for sharing their wisdom on what to do with all that stuff and know better how to find it again!

John Roxborogh

updated March 2013