Organizing My Research Life

[Here is an updated version of this post.]

I often write about things I don’t like or think are hyped (at least in regards to library usefulness). My instinctive antipathy to the library equivalent of what someone recently termed the “breathless bullshit industry,” and the sheer amount of that breathless bullshit, means that I’m more often in critique mode than celebration mode. On the other hand, there are products and services more or less directly related to library research that I like, that I use, and that I heartily recommend to any faculty or students who might be interested. I’ve even started what I hope will be an annual presentation to faculty and students in my liaison areas about such research tools for scholars. The best way to know what tools are good and useful is to use them, so I’m going to discuss what tools I use and why to organize my research life. I definitely recommend you try them if you haven’t.

First is the LibX Toolbar. (Here’s a link to a description of the Princeton version if you’re unfamiliar with it). It’s a toolbar that can be adapted to search your library’s various databases and provide quick links to important resources. If your library doesn’t have one, build one. If it has one, use it and promote it. The PUL LibX toolbar is now my main portal to library resources, and all the feedback I’ve gotten on it is positive. It’s available for Firefox, Chrome, and IE. I’d created a library toolbar a few years before LibX came along, but LibX is so good I immediately abandoned it. It’s the best library search tool I’ve found, and with it I find I rarely need to go to the library website at all.

Once I’ve found books and articles through the LibX toolbar, it’s time to put them in a citation management system. Far and away my favorite citation organization program is Zotero. The library subscribes to Refworks, so I have to maintain some facility with that, and Mendeley has its charms. But Zotero is so easy to set up and use, especially as a Firefox plugin, that I see no reason to use another program. The Word plugin works well, too. Lately, I’ve been using the group libraries part as well, both at work for sharing citations and in the LIS class I teach for an assignment. And unlike Refworks, I don’t have to be signed onto the campus network or put in a special code. If I’m browsing the web and want to grab a citation, one click is usually enough. I’ve used the standalone version with Google Chrome, but there are some things it doesn’t do as well as the Firefox plugin.

Besides organizing citations, the most important thing is for me to have access to everything I’m writing and every digital document I might want to read from any computer with an Internet connection. I also never want to lose a document. For my writing, I put everything in Dropbox, because of the several programs I’ve tried (including Sugarsync, Google Drive, ADrive, Asus Webstorage, CX Storage, and Live Mesh) it’s the most reliable for syncing across computers and operating systems. I use it on two Windows 7 laptops, an iMac, two Android devices, and very occasionally a Linux netbook and it’s never let me down. I also rely significantly on Sugarsync, but the Magic Briefcase doesn’t want to sync reliably with the Mac, or knowing Apple, the Mac doesn’t want to sync reliably with Sugarsync.

Everything goes into Dropbox, but for live writing projects I do further backup. For the book, I had all my writings and readings in a Dropbox folder, but I also used Sugarsync to backup the Dropbox folder. Unlike Dropbox or Google Drive, Sugarsync will allow you to not only create a sync folder (the Magic Briefcase), but backup any other folder on your hard drive to the cloud. Thus, for an important folder, I’ve got a copy on in the Dropbox folder on my hard drive, which is synced with any computer I use in addition to the cloud, plus I have the same folder synced to the cloud with Sugarsync. Only in the event of some global catastrophe would my work be lost, and by that time I probably wouldn’t have time to worry about it. A lot of people use Google Docs exclusively for their writing, and they have to rely completely on Google, or go through bothersome exports. I use either MS Word (which is much more robust than Google Docs anyway) or Scrivener, which means the files I create in a synced drive can be accessed without an Internet connection on my regular computers or with one from anywhere. (If I didn’t get MS Office free from my university, I’d use Open Office the same way, which is also more robust than Google Docs.)

Then, the reading. I could just dump all my digital readings into Dropbox as well, but that’s not a particularly good way to organize hundreds of files. For a while I tried Mendeley, which I liked, but it only works with PDFs. Eventually I settled on Calibre, which handles PDF, mobi, and epub formats among others and also allows for conversion among them. Got a PDF or epub you want to convert to mobi to read on your Kindle? Or to epub to read on something besides the slow-loading Kindle app (I use Aldiko on Android)? Calibre’s great for that. There are even plugins available that let you do interesting things with DRM, but I won’t talk about that. Unlike Mendeley, when you import a file into Calibre, it doesn’t just add the metadata and point to the original folder. Calibre instead imports the file into a separate Calibre folder, which I then back up with Sugarsync. Like Mendeley, it lets you alter the metadata and add tags. Most of my hardcore reading and writing is done on one laptop, but if I want access to those files from another computer, I can just log into Sugarsync, download them, and even import them into Calibre on that computer. And, as with writing, for current vital readings on a given project, I usually add them to Dropbox as well for easy syncing, knowing that I have a well organized and searchable version in Calibre.

So that’s it. Armed with the LibX toolbar, Zotero, Calibre, Dropbox, and Sugarsync, I can pretty much guarantee that finding library materials, organizing citations, organizing readings, and backing up everything is easier than ever. If you want to describe alternate strategies that work well for you, please do.

20 thoughts on “Organizing My Research Life

  1. there is a specific Zotero translator for the Princeton Primo catalog – are you sure it doesn’t work? If so, could you report it to the Zotero forum?

  2. I haven’t actually checked up on this recently, but will. Thanks for letting me know!

  3. Adam, you’re right. I just checked it. It seemed a little slow, but definitely worked.

  4. Pingback: Organizing My Research Life | Academic Librarian | Errol A. Adams, J.D. M.L.S' Blog

  5. While I agree that Google docs/drive isn’t as robust as MSWord or OpenOffice, I prefer Google for the collaborative tools that it provides. I have yet to find their exportation tools to be any more or less cumbersome than attaching files to an email. For finishing touches, I use one of the more robust word processors. For presentations, I do the reverse, uploading a ‘skin’ from MSPowerPoint then completely adding content and formatting in Google drive. Google spreadsheets has also impressed me, and I have yet to convert one way or the other to gain any features.

  6. Thanks for this a useful post.

    Out of curiosity, do you annotate PDFs on your laptop or other device? If so, what do you use? This is the missing link in my digital research gathering/storing/using system. I use Mendeley to store and sync citations and PDFs as well as generate bibliographies. Yet the iPad client doesn’t allow for annotation…which is one of the best uses for an iPad, in my opinion.

  7. I’ve been at ALA and haven’t had time to comment. Karen, the reason I prefer Word and Dropbox/Sugarsync to Google is that there is no need to export at all. Just save and it syncs. That’s also why I rarely use my university network drive, because I have to log onto network. On the other hand, I still do use Google Docs for all sorts of things, though less so now that I use Evernote a lot. I’ve done some collaborative projects in Google Docs, but recently I was being edited and the editor shared the doc via Dropbox and that worked pretty smoothly, too.

    Sarah, I annotate PDFs using a freemium program called PDF Xchange Viewer:
    It’s a Windows program, though. However, I usually don’t annotate so much as highlight, and Adobe Reader X allows highlighting. Usually, instead of annotating, I pull quotes into a Word file and add commentary after that. That’s usually why I read PDFs on my laptop, because it’s easy and fast to copy/ CTRL-Tab/ paste/ comment, which is harder to do on a tablet. I’ve also set up a Word macro that cleans up the weird line breaks in PDF quotes I’ve copied. Even when I annotate, I want a keyboard so I can type it in quickly rather than rely on my slower handwriting. An iPad with a PDF annotating and handwriting recognition and conversion would be pretty nifty, but I haven’t seen anything like that. Mendeley allows for annotations, but if I’m reading you right it doesn’t do it on an iPad.

  8. Pingback: Cleaning Up Text from PDFs | Academic Librarian

  9. Wayne, a clarification question on your reading resource (Calibre): when you have collected all your non-pdf web resources (i.e. online journal articles, blog posts, etc.)do you dump these into Calibre too, or do you just read them in Zotero? Thanks.

  10. I’m not sure things can be read in Zotero, though they can be in Mendeley. I put all PDFs, Mobi/Kindle files, and epub files into Calibre, where I can organize them and get to them if I need to. For web resources, I might have the citation in Zotero with the link, but I would usually save the link in Google Bookmarks if it was on the web or save the link in Google Reader if it was a blog post in my feed. These kind of methods are idiosyncratic, but that’s what works for me.

  11. Thanks for writing this piece. I appreciate the specificity in your tech reviews of various tools as far as what’s proven most fail safe across various devices.

  12. Pingback: Organizing My Research Life [Updated] | Academic Librarian

  13. Pingback: Organizing My Research Life [Updated] | Academic Librarian

    • No, other than doing those searches through other means. From what I understand, this is a problem with some OPACs as well.

  14. I just stumbled over this post – I know it is a bit old but nevertheless it is still my basic setup for the research I do. Thank you for the overview!!

    One tip: I have put the calibre folder into the dropbox directory. If you now use this folder (within dropbox) with calibre on every computer you are working on, all the changes to the library will sync with all other computers immediately. That is very useful!

  15. I created a small add-on for Chrome which is very good for saving citations, pictures, links and videos and organizing them. I think it can be great for researchers! Please tell me what you think 🙂

    You can check it here

  16. While the article provides good tips, using 5 different apps to organize research sounds utterly complex. If you were to simplify to 2 solutions which ones would you pick?

    • I don’t use all these anymore, but I’m not sure I could pick two. Zotero and Dropbox are the most important for me, but I’ve also been using Scrivener for note-taking, but Word for writing because of the Zotero plugin. And I use the LibX toolbar most days.

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