Time to get your references in shape!

You may have adopted a beautifully organised approach to your reference management from the very start of your PhD, or you might be like one of the Hive Scholars!

We spoke to Bethany Logan, a Research and Scholarship Librarian in our very own library to straighten out our own reference management. Read our conversation below for an introduction to reference management software and some tips to tidy up your files and workflow.

Photo by Humble Lamb on Unsplash

Louise Elali

Thanks for chatting to us today, Beth. Would you mind starting off by giving us an introduction to Reference Management?

Bethany Logan

Sure, undergraduates or masters students think that referencing as this thing that you’ve just gotta do and it’s connected to plagiarism. It all stresses people out a little bit.

We can also think about it in a really positive way. It’s about signposting people to other ideas and communicating research. It’s about making sure your work is of PhD quality and that your examiner doesn’t have to ask you a million questions because they can actually join all the dots up.

Referencing is sharing of ideas, demonstrating that you’ve done the work and you don’t need to repeat what someone else said. It is a good and positive thing.

For PhD researchers, you’re likely to be managing more citations than before. For an MA dissertation, for example, managing references with paper is a bit more straightforward because you’re not going to lose stuff, but by the time you’re working on 80,000 words, you’re going to be citing a lot of different people. It can really quickly get out of control.

In the library we run some sessions around reference management software, which are tools that help people to manage all of their references. It’s important to say that reference management software is not the only way of doing things. It’s one way. I think it’s particularly helpful because of all the things I just said about having loads of references but if someone has their own Excel spreadsheet of all of the things they want to say and it’s working for them, then that’s really cool.

Equally, if someone’s got loads of pieces of paper in a little drawer and that’s working for them. That’s totally cool, too. Whatever it is that people are doing it just needs to be sustainable. So, if it’s a digital solution, you’ve got to back it up. If it’s a pen and paper, then what happens if you spill something on it?

There are a few different digital products out there. The three main ones that we support at Sussex are EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero. Essentially, they do the same sort of thing and there’s two elements to them.

  • One is about managing your references so they enable you to grab your bibliographic data from different places. So, by and large, we’re talking about finding sources on the web. You can grab all the information that you need, usually at the click of a button, and pull it into your Reference Manager. It creates a private library, a massive brain dump of everything you’ve ever found.

You can go in and colour code or label things that will help you organise the thousands of references that you’ve come across, which is a little bit like procrastination!

  • The second part of it is a word processor plug-in. So when you are wanting to insert your references, instead of having to write your references out manually, Reference Managers will do that for you automatically, which will save you tons and tons of time. The beauty is that if you want to change your referencing style, you can. So, say for your thesis, you’re working in Harvard style and then you want to submit to a journal that uses a different style, you can just click a button and it will magically change around.

It’s a good time investment to figure out how Reference Management software works.

There are loads of products out there but the three that we support, as I said, are EndNote Mendeley, and Zotero.

EndNote is oldest and in my opinion it’s clunkier. It’s run by Thomson Reuters, who run Web of Science. So it plugs really nicely into any Thomson Reuters products.

It was built for scientists and people doing computer science and engineering, so it allows you to open up the back end where you can write your own referencing style if you feel like it! But most people don’t want to do that and don’t want that level of customisation. It’s also not as responsive or attractive as the others.

Then there’s Mendeley, which loads people like, and a lot of people use. It is really pretty, and it’s owned by Elsevier who own Scopus. Whatever you think of Elsevier, their reference management product is pretty cool, and it works really intuitively. It’s also got some nice features, where you can annotate your PDFs.

It is big, and it can be really confusing. You can share stuff with others, but that somehow accidentally promotes illegal sharing of PDFs, which is concerning. So, if we share an open access PDF journal article, that’s totally cool. If you’ve got a journal article that you downloaded from Sussex library (where our institutional licenses pay for the subscription) and you then send it to a researcher, who’s at another institution, that’s a breach of copyright.

Devyn Glass

So if we were collaborating within the same institution and we had a shared folder. That’s okay, but if we had external collaborators, we can just share the citations, not the PDF attached?

Bethany Logan

Yes, bibliographic data is free for all. You can share that with whoever you like but not the actual PDF or an interlibrary loan.

Then the last one is Zotero, which is free and open source, and it’s run by a not-for-profit. So that’s all pretty good. I feel like it’s a bit like using something like Spotify; it has a nice interface, really similar to Mendeley in lots of ways, but it has all that ethical background to it as well, which is really nice.

The platform you choose really depends on individual preferences. So if you are a computer scientist and your thesis supervisors use EndNote and everybody that you’re going to collaborate with uses EndNote, then this is likely the best one for you.

Devyn Glass

Is it difficult to switch between softwares, particularly if you’ve started with one and you then find out your collaborators use something else and you want to completely move to a different platform?

Bethany Logan

You can and it is not difficult, but not all the functionality is compatible from one product to another so you might lose some things. If it’s all bibliographic data that will probably survive a transfer quite nicely. If there’s additional data; PDFs and annotations, or for example, in Zotero you can link to different items. So I often link the reference to the review of a book. Those additional- product specific features- might not make it over in the transfer.

If you realise that you’ve invested loads of time and energy into the wrong one, then yeah, you can definitely move things I just recommend checking, making sure you’ve not lost stuff. What I wouldn’t recommend doing is having multiple reference managers going on at once because of the way that they need to stay synchronized with other things, it could get messy.

Aanchal Vij

How early would you suggest PhD students start using software, if they’re going to be using one?

Bethany Logan

I recommend getting into it before you do your the bulk of your literature review because it means that every time you find something you can add it to your library. It is fine to do it retrospectively, if you’ve found that if you’ve got a load of PDFs on your computer, for example, but it can be really helpful when you’re doing literature searching.

We do amazing searches and spend loads of time thinking up keywords that are super relevant to us and then we extract all of all of the results to look at later. But we know what happens as a result, the first paper looks amazing and then you go down a rabbit hole, following up the references from that paper and then you can never remember how to recreate the search.

Instead, you can add everything into your Reference Manager and label it as ‘search number one day three of my PhD’ and you can always come back to it, which can help prevent duplicating the same searches over and over again.

Whenever I’m talking to researchers about this, it’s never day three. So I should say that you can still do it later on in the research process; it will just be a bit of work. So if you’re right at the end of your doctorate, and you’ve gotten really into the swing of doing things manually maybe there isn’t a need to change, as it would require a big time investment.

You gotta learn how to do it to make it work well. You’ve got to put the time in.

If you are late in your doctorate and you’ve got the time and you can see how valuable it could be to contain all of the references that you found during your doctorate, it might be worth the time investment. It will be helpful if you’re going to want to use your library for follow up papers and you’re likely going to do loads of ongoing research.

Aanchal Vij

A difficult thing that I have found is with the Chrome plug-ins to extract information. It’s almost always inaccurate. You always have to manually put stuff in I can’t rely on it. As I didn’t use a software earlier and make the corrections, I now have to go over one-by-one to change myself.

So, I’m just wondering which software is more accurate with its extraction of details?

Bethany Logan

Actually, I think they’re probably all as good as each other. If it’s not extracting the details, then there might be something wrong with the way that it’s set up, but it’s more likely the quality of the bibliographic data from your original data source.

And not all PDFs have embedded meta-data. So if you’re looking at older PDFs, then some bibliographic details might be missing, and also things like government documents or blog posts don’t always have full bibliographic data.

Louise Elali

Sometimes it doesn’t work exactly how you want it to work. I tried to use a Reference Manager but every time I tried to add something to it wouldn’t pull in all the details. So I’d have to correct that. Anyway, so after like two weeks of that I stopped using.

What you’re talking about sounds like magic. It’s like, oh, you can just add it in. And it’s going to be perfect. And then at the end, your bibliography is like written for you and it just sounds like the best thing in the world.

Bethany Logan

Yeah, and that’s me doing the big sell, because it’s something that I think can be really helpful but there is a lot of quality control needed. So every time you add a reference you need to check the bibliographic data that’s coming in.

References that you get out of your records manager is only going to be as good as the data that you put into it.

So if you are getting all of your data from Google Books or from like grey literature like government papers, it might be a little bit wonky. If you’re getting your data from records from like the British Library, or any of our library subscribed resources, there’s a really good chance that it’s going to be accurate.

So it’s worth then checking it when you’re adding things, and that can be part of that workflow, which you should try and separate out from your reading workflow, and you separate that out from your writing work flow! It is creating a whole like new layer of admin. to your research. If that doesn’t like seem like a fun thing to do, then you don’t need to do it, but it can be so useful and magical.

Louise Elali

I was kind of hoping you’re gonna tell me, well that was 10 years ago. It’s so much better now.

Bethany Logan

Well, also, it will be so much better now, because the state of meta-data and embedded links is all going to be so much better and the software is going to be able to grab that correct information more easily.

Devyn Glass

You describe such a systematic nice way of working. And I wished I adopted that from the beginning of my PhD – having different workflows and labelling/linking resources.

I’ve had Mendeley since the beginning of my PhD and just chuck stuff in it. It’s now so unorganised! What do I do now?

Bethany Logan

There are lots of different kinds of approaches that you could take. I’m going to describe one that works for me. You can organise things into folders, but you can also tag things, and I think the tags are really helpful. You can add more esoteric stuff, like ‘this is how I feel about this paper’, ‘it complements my thinking on x’, whereas folders are really useful for more practical things like grouping resources together for a chapter. So you use folders more thematically.

The way that you would approach it to clean it up is not very fun, but I would suggest going to your unsorted file and file/tag things from there. This is a major job so you could filter down, to say the last year, to make it look manageable. Or maybe spend 15 minutes filing all of the newspaper articles that you’ve gathered and the next day, 15 minutes filing another item type. It requires a bit of a methodical approach.

Aanchal Vij

Another question is about when you write a bibliography for your entire PhD at the end. Are you only supposed to put in work that you mentioned in the PhD or do you reference things you have read but have not really made an appearance in the actual chapters?

Bethany Logan

So that depends on the subject area and the general consensus within that field and it really varies.

Reference management software is designed to add only the things that you have included in your text. So what it does is as you’re writing you can grab a reference and drop it into your text. Then at the end, you click ‘create the bibliography’ and it goes through and it looks for all of the connections with your reference manager and it creates a bibliography. It doesn’t work so well when you want to put in the additional things that you’ve read. I would check with your supervisor in terms of what the accepted practice is in your field.

Louise Elali

Do you have any last tips for us, Beth?

Bethany Logan

I would say take a logical approach to reference management and also apply that to everything else you do. So think about trying to record the last search you did. So what database did you use? Also, if you’re storing data sets from results from experiments. Make sure you’re doing that in a logical way as well.

Reference management software is one piece of a data management puzzle.

— Bethany Logan and The Hive Scholars


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