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How to remember what you read

Organize your literature

Most successful authors read a lot and keep track of the papers and articles that are relevant to a topic. A literature management program is an ideal tool to help with this task.

Imagine you and your colleague are preparing the final draft of your seminar paper. Time is running out, the deadline is approaching. The following quirky dialogue unfolds:

You: Which paper was it again, that mentioned our main theory??
Your colleague: Don’t remember. Let me search for the papers… I can’t find them…

Avoid this by using a tool called literature management program. Why? You will read a lot before you write your scientific article or seminar thesis. Some papers will be relevant, others will not advance your research. However, it is difficult to know at the beginning what you need in the end. If you do not want to lose information or even yourself in this process there is one wise approach: Organize what you read when you read it.

What is the aim of literature management?
Literature management keeps your sources organized, helps you find PDFs again, assists you to remember what was in which article, and it makes it easier to cite all your papers in APA format (see 1.6 How to cite?).

Can’t I simply put all literature in folders on my computer?
Sure, you can. However, programs are usually more user-friendly. If you really want to save your literature in folders, use a system! It is advisable to group literature by similar subjects using sub-folders and sub-sub-folders, for example:


You should name files consistently. You could label each document by applying the same sequence, for instance:


as in:


If you proceed by saving the literature you use in a systematic way into folders, you get the benefit that you do not need to become familiar with a new software. There is also a downside: You may easily lose track if you collect a lot of literature. And your system will not provide help for citations in APA format; you will have to ensure the correct formatting on your own.

How does literature management work?
Literature management works in three easy steps:
1. Find an article you want to store
2. Add the article to Zotero (or any other program you use)
3. Correct the data of the article

OK. But where can I get a literature management program?
There are many simple to use programs you can download from the internet. Some are free, for others you need to pay a fee. Here are two examples that you can use without charge:
Zotero: A free application for collecting, organizing, citing, and sharing literature, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It can be downloaded from the Zotero Webpage.
Mendeley: A free application for collecting, organizing, reading, citing, sharing, and storing literature. It features also elements for social networking. Mendeley is available for Mac and Windows here.

Share a library with your group
It helps your research if everybody in your group sees the articles the other group members have found. You can share your literature via Zotero. If you would like to do this, one of your group needs a Zotero account. If you do not have one, you need to register here. After that, select ‘Group’ in the top navigation bar, then find the submenu ‘Create a New Group’. Chose a name for your group and the group type (public, public with closed membership, private). Use the ‘Members settings’ to ‘invite members’ and insert the email addresses or the usernames of the members into the textbox.

Organize articles by topic: tags
Tags are short keywords that help you group your literature by topic. Thus, the keywords ‘academic writing’, and ‘experimental design’ might be added as tags to the following book:
Harris, P. (2008). Designing and Reporting Experiments in Psychology.

If you want to see the tags in Zotero, click on an article and choose ‘tags’ in the navigation on the right side (Zotero adds tags automatically) You can also add your own tags or change the auto-tags. Zotero allows you to search for articles or filter them by tags, for instance, if you want to see all the articles you have gathered that refer to a certain theory. To do so, you can either type the tag into the search field of Zotero at the upper right corner or click on a tag from the list in the bottom left corner.

You find further information on tags here.

Find duplicated articles
Sometimes an article is added twice. With Zotero, you can easily find duplicates by going to ‘Dublicate Items (Eintragsdubletten)’ in the left side navigation, and then click on ‘Merge Items (2 Einträge zusammenführen)’ at the upper right corner. Thus, you merge two identical articles.


University of Basel