Useful study tools: Part 1 — Zotero

So onward and into Zotero.…

I have already allud­ed to the fact that Zotero is a cita­tion man­ag­er, and there are plen­ty of tuto­ri­als out there for how Zotero works in cita­tion mode, and how to extract ref­er­ences from Amazon.com, your local library, or the var­i­ous jour­nal sys­tems into it.
But it can be used as so much more than that. Obviously the first aspect is to get your ref­er­ences that you are read­ing into Zotero, that way you can remem­ber what you have read. Once you have done this you will get a screen rough­ly like this:

Ahah, but you say, “I already knew how to do that”, and sure, that is the easy part of it. But how do you keep it organ­ised, and most impor­tant­ly how do you know what is in each ref­er­ence? Well the one bit which I think is most over­looked in Zotero, and oth­er cita­tion man­agers is that lit­tle tab next to “Info”, the “Note” tab. Here you can place all of your infor­ma­tion which you want to store beside your ref­er­ence. Put your notes in here and it looks like this:

Now because I don’t want to tran­scribe out all my notes from my read­ing all over again, and I find that sit­ting in front of the com­put­er while doing my research high­ly dis­tract­ing (ooooooh, fun­ny pho­tos.…) I utilise the favoured fea­ture from GoodReader above for this por­tion of my organ­i­sa­tion. I sim­ply extract the anno­ta­tions and high­lights from my PDFs through GoodReader, email them to myself and paste them in an appro­pri­ate note.
For sin­gle top­ic arti­cles I tend to have a raw notes page, some­times a sum­ma­ry or abstract note which is a brief con­cep­tu­al list of the top­ic of the paper, and usu­al­ly I will write a list of research issues which I think come out of the read­ing which I have done.

Because all of the Psych mem­o­ry research that I have seen (thanks to my Psych bud­dies) points to reten­tion being best if the mate­r­i­al is revised 1–2 days after first learn­ing it, I tend to do the sum­maries and research issues a cou­ple of days after first read­ing the arti­cle. This refresh­es the infor­ma­tion in my mind as well as forc­ing me to re-engage with it.

But I think one of the biggest ben­e­fits with this method of organ­i­sa­tion is that its all emi­nent­ly search­able. Whereas my office used to look like it was over­flow­ing with a small dead for­est, and pre­vi­ous­ly I would be scrab­bling around in var­i­ous mani­la fold­ers and a whirl­wind of post-it notes to try and find the source of a quote, I can now search for it in Zotero, and in pret­ty short order I have found the doc­u­ment I am after.

I could con­tin­ue on all night extolling the virtues of Zotero, com­pared to my pre­vi­ous research organ­i­sa­tion sys­tem, but I will stop after show­ing one more fea­ture which I think is wor­thy of men­tion. Namely the abil­i­ty to link doc­u­ments from your hard disk to Zotero, with­out hav­ing to embed them in the database.

By using the Attach Link func­tion you are able to link the doc­u­ment to Zotero for future easy access, but with­out clog­ging up your data­base with giga­bytes of PDFs (my 6 year run­ning Endnote data­base was push­ing 5gb includ­ing embed­ded doc­u­ments). Using this you can eas­i­ly find your doc­u­ments again if you need to access them. All in all a very use­ful piece of software.

While I have focused on GoodReader and Zotero in this arti­cle, they cer­tain­ly arn’t the sole appli­ca­tions which can do this, and there may be oth­ers which suit you bet­ter. But I hope you can use this style of dig­i­tal man­age­ment, or even part of it, to help you with your study requirements.

Realistically this is also only one aspect of my study­ing method­ol­o­gy. I have allud­ed to some oth­er things in this arti­cle which should prob­a­bly deserve their own posts. High on this list is cloud stor­age and back­up strate­gies, but they will have to wait until the next time I feel the need to do some struc­tured pro-crastination.
Perhaps until then you could tell me what your pre­ferred method of study organ­i­sa­tion is, and pos­si­bly what you would like to know more about?

1. Structured Pro-cras­ti­na­tion, the act of get­ting things done by using them to put off doing some­thing even more impor­tant. See: http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

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