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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Research tools revisited

Last October, I blogged about various ways I organize research: 1) emailing myself articles, 2) a spreadsheet, 3) a research database.

Having used the latter two methods more in the last eight months, I thought I would update that post with new observations.

For starters, mailing myself articles to read is out.  I don't do it much anymore, and if I do, I add it to the database.

Also, I found that the spreadsheet method isn't that great. I found myself looking at the list of cases at the end of the project, and I found that I had already addressed most of the key cases.  Where I did look at it first, it was missing a lot of information I later found.  I think the reasons for this are twofold.  First, it's not a very elegant way to view information - it's hard to sort, it's not big enough to hold all of the information I might want (and if does have enough, it becomes unreadable), and you can't attach the case or article being referenced.  Second, a single summary is not terribly helpful when you need to cite particular passages.

I've worked more with Zotero and other available products, but they just don't seem to work the way I would like.

That leaves the database, which has been great - I used to draft two articles and finish a third (that I had started using other methods).  The key was the linked quotes and notes database - I found that I could quickly get detailed information about the article or case without having to look back at the original article - that is, I only needed to read it once.  I get information into the database in two ways - I either directly add my notes and/or copy and paste quotes as I'm reading, but that requires constant computer and network access while I read - not so great.  Alternatively, I mark passages and notes on a written copy, and hand it off to my research assistant to add to the database.

I've also found a relatively useful way to deal with books.  For those that I can't get through open access (google books or creative commons, etc.), I link to directly.  For archaic media like bound paper books, I flag interesting passages with post it notes, and then enter those passages or notes about them into the database.  This is a little bit more work than I ordinarily would want to do, but the goal is to do it once and do it right for important books.

One drawback that I'm working on - if I add a new article topic to the database, I have to re-identify which articles might be relevant.  As the database grows (425 cases and articles and growing), I'm going to have to rely on my memory a lot more than I would like.  One solution to this is keyword searching in the notes, or a periodic browse through all articles about a certain subject area (like patent law) rather than article topic (like subject matter) to add additional article topics to a reference.

One final point - as the database grows and as research assistants graduate, it will take more cycles to add references to the database.  Whoever enters the data will have to make sure the item is not already there from prior projects.

So, there you have it.  This may seem like old news to those who have been doing this for a while, but I thought it might be helpful to anyone trying to figure out how to organize their research. I'd love to hear more tips from anyone who has a good working system.

Posted by Michael Risch on June 11, 2009 at 06:38 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Bruce: You may want to check out http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org/ for the notecard feature.

Posted by: Levi | Jun 16, 2009 5:49:30 PM

Matt -

Yes, I've tried that version - it is a little better, but still not as functional as I demand. It may work fine for others and I encourage all to try it.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jun 12, 2009 11:04:23 PM

Have you used the Zotero 2 beta? It has rich-text notes (which aren't perfect, but are better than can be found in a lot of reference managers) & supports group syncing. These may address your 2nd & 3rd points to Jason.

Also: there is a Bluebook style in the repository. It is not perfect, but it saw a lot of improvements in January & people seem to be using it.

Posted by: matt | Jun 12, 2009 9:49:31 PM

Jason -

I'm glad to hear it was helpful. Reasons I don't like Zotero:
1. Scraping of Lexis and Westlaw is not great
2. Notetaking is not great
3. Distributed availability (including for my research assistants) is not great
4. No bluebook support

Bruce -

I agree. My database has one item per page, sortable in all sorts of ways, and categorizable. I was a huge hypercard fan, so I'm with you.

Dan -

You remind me of Caveman Lawyer "your world frightens me!" Here's why I don't think what you describe (which is very close to my "email to myself" method) is a great alternative:
1. Not fully distributed - even if google desktop works remotely (which I think it does), it's not great for access control for research assistants
2. No good way to store cites with it (only type the bluebook cite once)
3. No good way to categorize without duplicating
4. Author searching is hard, as you get authors and citations in other articles.
5. No real notetaking - I only want to read an article once (maybe skim it for follow-on articles). If there's a killer quote, I want it (and its pin cite) recorded for all eternity. What a lot of people do is cut and paste from prior articles (or from others), but there's something to be said for having a collection of all the stuff you think is great.
6. (In my system at least) I can publish the summaries selectively for others to read.

Storage locally is basically the same as lexis or westlaw - just a smaller version on your hard disk - which is worse than lexis in some ways.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jun 12, 2009 4:32:09 PM

I'm so puzzled by all this, and also intrigued, as I never heard of any of these software options. I think I just keep most of the articles I read in word or pdf, and hope that google desktop search picks up most of this stuff. Would that work as an alternative?

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 12, 2009 2:05:06 PM

I'd really like something like Scrivener, mentioned in a comment to your last post, for Windows. Basically what I need is electronic note card stacks. I used note cards in college and grad school, and so far no software I've seen duplicates the ease of shuffling through note cards and reordering the stacks. Scrivener's website links to Page Four as a Windows alternative, but I don't see a note card feature there. I'm a little surprised there isn't more of a market for this.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 12, 2009 12:23:37 PM

This and your previous post is hugely helpful, thank you, as I've been trying to figure out similar system. Would be curious as to why you don't like Zotero as that would be what I'd be inclined to try next.

Posted by: Jason | Jun 12, 2009 11:39:13 AM

I have been using Zotero for about two years now, and find it invaluable for compiling information from articles and books -- as you say, the key when entering data is to "do it once and do it right." However, I don't use Zotero for collecting cases -- in large part because Zotero has trouble translating from the Lexis/Westlaw databases. When it comes to case law, I'm still searching for the perfect system ...

Posted by: Nadia Sawicki | Jun 12, 2009 10:06:07 AM

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