Keeping all of one’s project files, notes, and versions can be quite difficult to do. But, the better researchers are at organizing their work, the more efficient they can be.
Each researcher develops their own research and writing workflows. Some prefer to use a single program, such as Scrivener, to take all of their notes, maintain their bibliographies, and create all of their drafts. Others use a combination of programs to organize their ideas, moving between Evernote, Google Docs, and Zotero.
No matter how researchers arrange their workflows, it is unlikely that any single program will give them all of the tools that they need to complete their projects. Because of this, they will be jumping back-and-forth between programs. And, if they are developing a research project over months or years, it is possible that notes and files will disappear from memory, into the depths of their hard drive, where they won’t be rediscovered.
Because of this, it is essential that researchers develop systematic approaches to their research workflow before they begin their projects.
There are many notetaking systems out there. While this tutorial will not review them, it is worthwhile reviewing them. They can help researchers develop better practices in their research process.
Taking notes on paper has a number of advantages. Researchers are not limited to the line-by-line format of standard word processing programs. They can easily draw, sketch models, and visually represent ideas. However, for large projects, it is not very portable. And, it can be clumsy to find references and notes unless one works very intentionally — perhaps using a system of index cards or loose leaf sheets that can be arranged and rearranged as necessary.
Depending on the project, working in bound notebooks can be useful. Researchers must think about whether this is a good method for their projects. A bound notebook might be the perfect technology for ethnographic notes while in the field. However, they are clumsy for keeping notes on individual books or manuscripts.
Two of the greatest strengths of working in the digital environment is the ability to easily create backup copies and to search through text. With the exception of notebooks that work with smartpens, these capacities are absent when using paper.
This guide recommends using some system of digital notetaking — preferably one designed for taking notes such as Zotero, Evernote, OneNote, or Notability. All of these provide immediate cloud backups, universal search functionality, and tagging. Zotero, built specifically for scholarly research, is also a bibliographical management system, which allows users to attach pdfs and links to other references, notes, and documents. Researchers should investigate their options and figure out which one works best for them.
Having a good method for labelling and storing files at the beginning of a research project makes the analysis and writing portions of the project much easier.
Few researchers have only one type of file with which they work. They are likely to work with multiple formats of text documents, image files, video files, and sound files. Some of these will be items that they have created while others might be articles that they have downloaded as part of their literature review.
Organizing these files is idiosyncratic, both to the researcher (or research team) and the needs of the project. Nevertheless, there are a few guidelines that are generally relavant across projects.
No matter what the notetaking method, retain a single file hierarchy for the entire project. This means that there should be a master file folder in which everything gets placed. Within this folder might be sub-folders for Interviews, Videos, Notes, Meetings, IRB documents, etc. These might have their own subdirectories. Notes, for example, might be divided between notes on primary and secondary sources. Create a hierarchical structure and stick to it. A little bit of organizing at the beginning of the project will be essential as the project grows.
All files should be labelled with a unique Project ID. This should be included either in the filename itself and/or in the metadata associated with the file. Doing this allows researchers to do universal searches for files related to a project. For example, one might name the ID for a project on historical methods, “histmethods”. “Histmethods” is a unique string of characters, unlikely to show up in other documents when doing a search on a computer. It is short enough to include at the end of a file name or embed as a tag on a note. This makes it a good candidate for a Project ID.
A single Project ID for all files might be sufficient for small projects or for searching for files from past projects. However, many projects are large, and researchers find both a primary ID and a sequence of sub-IDs valuable. For example, a Historical Methods project might include a subset of research on project management. For these files, researchers might include “histmethods_projman” in their file naming scheme or embedded tags. A search for “histmethods” would still find the file, while a search for “histmethods_projman” would limit the search only to files associated with project management.
Nearly all research- and writing-related programs provide the ability to add tags to your files. So, for example, in Zotero, one can tag bibliography and notes. In Evernote, one can tag notes and embedded files. Even Word documents and pdfs allow one to add tags to the metadata. It is good practice to tag all files and notes according to a standard naming scheme.
No matter what the notetaking system, every item entry should have a date stamp associated with it. This will make it easier to find when searching by date, and it will make it easier to piece together the chain of ideas that led to a conclusion. While some programs automatically create a date stamp (Zotero is particularly good at this), others require the author to include one in the text or file name. Many researchers find including the date stamp in the file name to be a useful convention, especially when they need to keep track of meetings with other people as part of their research project.
A standard convention for date stamps is YEAR-MONTH-DAY. So a note for a meeting that took place on August 11, 2016 might be labelled 2016-8-11-Team_Meeting-histmethods.” The year-month-day naming method makes it easy to sort long lists of notes by date in a computer file manager.
Keeping track of file versions can be one of the most difficult aspects of file naming schemes. Some programs, such as Scrivener, have settings that allow scholars to keep a number of backups, which include versions by default. Likewise, some backup programs, such as Dropbox can save versions. Online file systems such as Google Drive automatically save versions.
Versions can be important, especially in the editing process. A file naming convention that integrates versions will likely prove useful. This might read as follows: “2016-8-11-report_text-histmethods-v1.” However, this will lead to a long list of versions in a file folder.
An alternative method is to use a system specifically designed for versioning. One such system is GitHub. While initially designed for coders, it is particularly good at handling text revision. And, for collaborative projects it provides advanced features such as version branching, commenting, and text comparisons. It is relatively easy to learn, and its interfaces (there are web-based, desktop, and command line options) provide a range of features. For more advanced users, there are hacks to use GitHub with programs such as Scrivener.
Version 1.0, 24 January 2016