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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing Direction and Organizing Research

Last week at the Conglomorate, Gordon Smith asked how people keep track of their research.  He then discussed how he “writes backward” and thus doesn’t really use any tools to keep track of the research.  It’s not clear to me why that should be the case – even if you use research to footnote, justify, and modify a paper after you have written it, you still need to keep track of the research.

For what it’s worth, I guess I am a front to back to front writer.  I read enough of the key cases, seminal articles, and articles on point to decide that I am not going to be preempted and to raise enough questions that I think need answering.  While I may have a general topic of interest, I have never (not yet, anyway) come up with a thesis before I have done some background reading.  I guess I’ve tried to pick difficult questions and I don’t want to commit to an answer until I see what others have tried to do to solve the problem.  Almost invariably my thesis has become different than I thought it was going to be, but still different enough from others to be original.  After I’ve written a substantial amount of an article, I then sift through anything and everything that might be relevant, filling in blanks, finding holes in my own argument that need filling, and finding support for what I’ve already argued (law review editors are invariably going to ask for it). 

Thus, even for backward writers, I think the organization tool question is an important one. A colleague in his first year of teaching recently asked me what tool(s), if any, I use to keep track of my research and that of my research assistants.  I suspect he did so even though I haven’t been in academia much longer than he has because (a) I seem to be the most tech savvy person on the faculty, and (b) I don’t have piles of printouts in my office.

I answer his question (and Gordon's) below the fold.

I’ve used three methods to keep track of research, depending on the project. Note that I am not much of a note-taker – I don’t have a pad of paper with notes, nor do I write in the margins.  Maybe this affects how I work – I like to read articles once for background, and then again more closely for citation possibilities.  Somewhere in the middle I write “notes” in complete thoughts that can be converted directly into sentence form.

Method 1: Email all files to myself from Lexis or Westlaw.  I then put them in a folder based on the project I am working on.  I have access to them everywhere, and I can categorize them as read, etc. once I am done with them so I don’t duplicate efforts.  The downside of this method is that new projects may make use of the same articles and over time I forget what I have accumulated.   Another downside is that the method doesn’t work to well with books.

Method 2: Create a spreadsheet with all the cases, cites, and key information that I want.  I am using this for a current project where I want to catalog every case on a certain topic – the spreadsheet gives a nice overview – almost like an empirical dataset of case law.  The downside is that the spreadsheet isn’t really tied to the source document, and I have to go look the case up each time I want to reference it.  It also doesn’t translate well to other projects where the case may be relevant on another point.

Method 3: I’ve created a password only tracker in at my website.  This is possible because I have my own server contract and upload my preferred software, an open source wiki/blog/everything called TikiWiki.  It doesn’t hurt that I contribute to the software, so I can fix my own bugs and (if I had more programming skill) add my own features.  The tracker is a database where I get to select the fields – name, cite, summary, authority type (book, case, article, website, whatever).  I have a second, linked database that consists of quotes, notes, summaries, paraphrases, etc. from the source, with page cites. You don't have to have your own website - M$ Access could be used to make a similar database and entry form.

Either my research assistants or I can add to the database, depending on the project.  I can also upload a copy of the document (still not great for books) for easy reference – no more re-downloading [insert your key case here] for the fiftieth time.

While I have yet to use the same sources on multiple projects since I created the database, I think the advantages are beginning to show.  I can easily filter by subject matter or project name.  Thus, when I do start a related project, all of the prior sources will be available for review without further searching.  Further, key quotes (and page numbers) are captured for posterity, eliminating the need to re-read [insert key law review article here] to get the exact language of the quote that I know inside and out.  The summaries allow for easy sorting by relevance for further review as well. 

There are a couple of scale benefits.  One actual benefit is that I am able to publish entries from my research database for the world to see and theoretically add to in my Cases of Interest  wiki.  An example is here.  I have noticed an increase in hits since I have been able to easily publish case information – the more cases, the more hits.  A theoretical benefit is that I could allow colleagues to access – and add to – the database.  We would all get the benefits of the others’ research and analysis.  There are limits, of course; if the database is too large it becomes a (poor) substitute for commercial research services. 

I tend to think that any of the above are better than the stacks and stacks of printouts that some of my colleagues have in their offices. For one thing, it’s messy -- not that I am a neat freak, but I have plenty of other materials, such as books and teaching materials, to make my office a mess.  Second, it’s pretty depressing to look at a stack of articles and know that it will take forever to get to the bottom.  Which leads to third, how do you find any particular article in the stack without creating an avalanche?  Fourth, I like having access at home, where I work at least a day a week, and according to my wife, at night and on weekends, holidays, vacations, etc.  Finally, I try to kill as few trees as possible.

So, there you have it – research management ideas from my not so vast experience in academia.  However, I haven’t been doing this that long and I wonder whether there is a better way and whether my working methods are unrealistic for the long run.  Given the dearth of comments at The Conglomerate, I'm not optimistic.

Posted by Michael Risch on October 22, 2008 at 07:54 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I am new to legal academic research so I have recently been looking into ways to keep myself organized. Thus far, I am using and relatively happy with Zotero, a Firefox extension. It allows me to take a snapshot of and create a reference file for each website that I need for research - including date of visit, etc. It also allows me to make a reference file for cases, statutes, journal articles and books (plus more formats). What is even better is that I can attach both notes and electronic versions of the reference to the reference file for ease of access later. Zotero also allows me to organize the references in folders and to create and apply keyword style tags for each reference. There is also a beta version for syncing your files among multiple computers, but I haven't tried it yet. I don't know if it is the best out there, but so far so good.

Posted by: Jenny | Oct 22, 2008 3:13:00 PM

I was struck, reading your description, how much it resembles a less-networked approach embodied in a piece of Mac software called Scrivener. For Mac users who like what you're describing (e.g., me), take a look at Scrivener; I've been using it more and more myself, and it's helping. To get a quick sense of it, take a look at Merlin Mann's review of it at 43Folders, at http://www.43folders.com/2007/01/21/scrivener-review

Posted by: Joe Miller | Oct 22, 2008 9:03:16 AM

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