Research is cumulative. Whatever we are working on, no matter how novel, stands on the shoulders of the researchers and theoreticians who came before us. We must, therefore, consume as much research as we produce. While the Internet has made consuming research easier, it has, unfortunately, made organizing what we consume much harder.
When you download an article, do you know immediately where it is going to be saved and how it is going to be named?
How about when you need to find an article while you’re writing a manuscript, do you know the quickest way to retrieve it?
If you hesitated in answering yes to either of these questions, then this blog post is for you because I am going to describe how I use Evernote to organize my references.
A Crowded Marketplace
Many reference manager programs help you organize your research files and maintain reference lists. I have tried many of these products, specifically Endnote, Mendeley, Paperpile, CiteULike, Bibtex, and Readcube. Each of these programs had their strengths and weaknesses. A common problem was cost—I’m looking at you Endnote—which was often more than I was willing to spend for what the program offered.
That Wonderful Green Elephant
If you are unfamiliar with Evernote, it is an online “notebook” where you save your “notes.” What makes it so versatile is that a note can be pretty much anything you want. Notes can contain text, or you can attach files to them. Notes can even be pictures, or whole articles “clipped” from the web using the Evernote Clipper Chrome extension.
You can give your notes multiple “tags” to help you organize them. Evernote has a powerful search tool that not only searches the names of notes, notebooks, and tags but can also search, depending on their type, within attached files (Premium Only).
Using Evernote to Organize Your References
When I come upon an interesting article, I attach it to a note, which I then save in a single “Articles” notebook. I title the note with the authors’ last names, year, title, and journal. I then put the full, APA-style reference in the body of the note above the attached PDF so I can copy and paste it later when working on a manuscript.
The key to organizing things in Evernote is tagging. I tag each article I save with the names of the authors’ (“Last name–First name”), the name of the journal (e.g., “Journal of Experimental Psychology”), and the project for which I will use the article (e.g., “@immigration”). I use two dashes (“–“) rather than a comma because Evernote uses commas to separate multiple tags. Also, two dashes avoids confusion with hypthenated names (e.g., “Pacheco-Vega–Raul”).
These tags represent the methods that I seem to use the most when searching for a reference. I avoid using subject tags because I noticed that I struggled to keep them consistent over time. I use Evernote’s search tool instead.
If you have the Chrome extension, you can save the PDF directly to Evernote (left panel) along with any information you want to include (right panel).
I like to create outlines of particularly useful references as well as write short summaries (maximum 200 words). I attach these to the notes containing the article. A nice feature of Evernote is that it will display full, scrollable Word documents or PDFs within the note, so you can read them without having to click on them or download them. Each note is equipped with a link that you can embed in other notes. This feature is useful when making connections between articles, such as those that support or refute one another.
The premium version of Evernote comes with an annotation tool that works reliably across platforms. It is based on the Skitch app, which annotates a PDF by “drawing” on it. This method contrasts with annotation tools featured in Acrobat or Preview, which recognizes lines of text and allows you to highlight it as if you working with a MS Word document. If you’re unclear about this distinction, recall any time you tried to annotate an older journal article or a scanned document.
The one nice thing about the annotation app is that once you’re finished, it will create a summary of all your markings at the beginning of the PDF.
Evernote also lacks some of the features that other reference managers offer. It does not automatically create APA-style references nor does it have a cite-while-you-write tool that will automatically generate a reference list in your manuscript.
I know that some reference managers feature shared libraries, which allows collaborators to compile references together. Evernote does not have this type of function per se, but it does enable you to share notebooks with other people and give them permission to add notes to it.
Aside from various features, the main difference between the different Evernote plans is the amount of data you can upload each month. The free plan limits you to 60 MB/month, the Plus plan ($24.99/year) limits you to 1 GB/month, and the Premium ($49.99/year) plan limits you to 10 GB/month.
I have been using a Premium account since September 2015, and I have never reached the 10 GB limit.
Evernote’s biggest strength is that it was designed as a digital notebook, meaning it gives you the flexibility to manage references in a manner reflecting your research style.