Research: How to keep track of sources and references

Whatever kind of writing you do, there are going to be online links you need to keep track of. Here’s a simple and quick way to get your research done…

 I’m currently working on a big thought leadership piece for a client. Many research papers have been looked at, many websites visited. At this point, I don’t know what information I’m going to use, or which links I’m going to use. So I need to keep all of them, just in case.

In a completely different context, I do a shift for an online news website every morning. At the end of my shift, I send a handover with a diary: which stories I processed that need someone else’s attention, which stories we don’t have yet, which big events are coming up. And here, again, I don’t quite know as I work which links or bits of text I’m going to need later.

Over the years, I’ve developed a system for this, the key to which is not to assume that I will remember things later, or be able to find them. But how do you keep track of things while working, and not have all the record-keeping slow you down?

Here’s the way I do it, step-by-step..

Step 1: Have a standard place to put things

Before I start work, I set up a document where I am going to stash things.

In the case of research that’s going to take place over days or weeks, that’s typically in a Word document or or Google document, put in a folder where I can logically find it later.

In the case of quick and dirty note-taking, I use an app called Sublime Text. It’s a simple text editor used a lot by developers and coders. For me, its chief virtue is that you can open several documents in one window. For example, in the case of my news shift, I have one document for South African news, and another for general African news because those are the key strands of my work. And another for notes and thoughts and lists of things I need to keep an eye on. Sublime Text saves in the background, so I never lose any of this work.

Step 2: Apply a system

With that document open, I start my research. As I go, I find themes and recurring issues – so I start making headings and sub-headings in my document, and then placing text or links in each section as I go.

Or, in the case of my news handover, I have a set of headings that I use every time. The outline of that stays at the top of the document, and every day I copy and paste it, and populate it as I go. (Examples of my standard headings: Stories already done; Stories we don’t have; Stories to follow up).

Step 3: Use keyboard shortcuts

There are four keyboard shortcuts that every person who uses a computer should know:

Control-A: select all (Command-A on an Apple machine)

Control-A: copy (Command-C)

Control-V: paste (Command-V)

Alt-Tab: move from the window you have open to the previous window you had open (Command-Tab)

With these, you can highlight a URL or a piece of text, copy it, hop to your research document, and paste the URL or piece text at lightning speed.

Step 4: Use the right-click menu to copy links

If you see some text with an underlying link, and you want to capture the link, right-click and use the copy link function. It’s called “Copy link” in Firefox and “Copy link address” in Google Chrome. Then Alt-tab to your document, hit Control-V – and you have the link captured.

Step 5: Colour-coding is your friend

If you are reading several research papers, and taking ideas and thoughts and quotes from them, give each one a colour. And then in your Word or Google doc, always make  text from that source that particular colour. That helps to stop you losing track of where a particular piece of text came from (which is surprisingly easy to do).

Do you have any tips and tricks for keeping track of information? They would be gratefully received!

READ: A Beginner’s Guide for Journalists: Taking Notes

Main picture:  Alina Grubnyak, Unsplash

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