Organizing your research

Today’s students tend to do everything electronically. I’d suggest using electronic tools to organize your research. But don’t forget about the paper.

Use the cloud

Work in the cloud. Use free tools such as Evernote or MS OneNote. Both are free and both can work in the cloud. Most students also have the educational edition of Microsoft Office, which includes a beefier version of OneNote. The best part of working in the cloud is the ease of which one can switch back and forth from laptop to iPad to iPhone, etc.

Back up your work. Working in the cloud is great, but you should back up your work elsewhere in case you accidentally delete something from your cloud folder.

Organize, organize, organize!

Set up project tabs and sub-tabs.  Make tabs and sub-tabs for each portion of your paper. As you read new materials, take copious notes. If you find interesting quotes or ideas, type them up into your tabs. (Better yet, copy and paste from the electronic version, such as a WestLaw page).

Copy and annotate files of source material

Copy PDFs into your program! Using OneNote, I copy the Word or PDF file of the article I’m reading, and then paste it into OneNote page that includes notes on that material. That way, I can access the original source material on any cloud-connected device. Very convenient.

Annotate your PDFs. There are a number of program you can use to annotate PDF documents, such as Adobe Acrobat (free) and FoxIt Reader (free for PC). To annotate, use your mouse or a PC pen (like a Wacom Bamboo). If you use an iPad, you can easily annotate on the screen. (Foxit and Adobe are both available for iPad and probably Android as well.)

Keep copies in traditional folders (in the cloud). Although key materials will be copied to a relevant notes page using OneNote, I also always set up more traditional research folders using DropBox or Google Drive, with subfolders for the type of research. Examples would include: law review articles, statutes, key cases, secondary cases, legislative history, etc.

Pinpointing and avoiding plaigiarism

Keep pinpoints in your notes. When you find an interesting idea or quote, be sure to note the pinpoint citation to the original. That way, when you start drafting, you can easily cut & paste your notes/quotes into the paper, and you will already know the pinpoint for the footnote.

In your notes, separate quotes from ideas-of-another from your ideas. When taking notes, be clear regarding what you are borrowing (such as quotes and ideas of another) and what you come up with yourself (your ideas). This way, when you write your draft, you’ll avoid the unintended, unattributed copying of the ideas of another person, i.e., plagiarism. I might suggest something like this:

  • As stated above, always take note of pinpoints.
  • If you’re writing down a quote, use quotation marks. That way, you’ll later know it’s the language of another and not something you wrote yourself.
  • Distinguish the ideas of others from your ideas. Thus, when I’m copying someone else’s ideas, I’ll type it up in normal a typeface. But when I’m adding my own ideas or comments, I’ll put my ideas in brackets.
  • If you use these techniques, then later on when return to your notes, you’ll be able to: 1) provide pinpoint cites; 2) know which notes are quotes; 3) know which notes are the ideas of others; and 4) know which ideas are yours. No head-scratching or agonizing over “is this my idea or someone else’s?”

Paper-based research

Key materials. Key cases, statutes, or other materials that are central to your research should be printed out and read in a traditional manner. Study after study shows that we read more carefully when holding a book or paper-based materials.

What to do with the paper? Keep them well-organized by topic or issue.

Research Technology

Great tools for your research:

  • Feedly: This is a service that allows you to aggregate all of your favorite sites and feeds through one application. You can use it on the web or download it for major tablets and smartphones.
  • Microsoft OneNote: this note-taking application permits you to create tabs, outlines, and to cut & paste materials. It’s an excellent resource for compiling a research project. Available either in Microsoft Office, or via free apps available for Windows and for major tablets/smartphones.
  • OneNote Clipper: Install this in your browser. When you find a useful source, use the OneNote Clipper to send the page to your OneNote.
  • Evernote: similar to OneNote.
  • Pocket: this browser add-on (also available in smartphone apps) allows you to: 1) bookmark webpages of interest; and 2) removes ads and clutter from webpages, making reading easier.
  • FoxIt PDF: For PDFs, you can use this tool to highlight, underline, and annotate PDF documents. (Another option is Adobe Reader.) Annotation is especially useful if you have an iPad, Surface, or other touchscreen tablet.
  • Feedly: If there are online sites that you visit often, why not consolidate them all into one place? That way, you can visit Feedly and get updates on dozens of sites at one time.