Three steps for taking control of a growing collection of sources.
It's go time. Your advisor's parting words are still ringing in your ears, "Good luck with your Bachelor's thesis!"
You've chosen your topic, gotten it approved, and now it's time to get started. But where on earth to begin?
First, you want to get some background information on your topic and learn a bit more about it before you really start searching in earnest. Although you'll later focus on academic sources, you know that a simple online search can be invaluable for getting to know your topic better. You read a report here, comments on a blog post there, and skim reports from research institute websites. Your hoarding instinct has been awakened: you begin saving everything you find.
Your first day flies by quickly. Not too hard at all, this whole research thing!
A growing collection of sources
The next morning you want to carry on where you left off the evening before. But then you take a look at the many online sources you've already found. If you continue adding to your sources at this rate, your collection of sources will soon be too large to work with efficiently.
Three steps for regaining control
We recommend building three steps into your workflow at this point that will help you better deal with your sources:
Step 1: Collect
Pick a central location where you'll gather together all the sources that initially interest you. Keeping everything in one place helps you already start bringing some structure to your growing collection of sources.
Here are three options for online sources:
- Bookmarks and browser tabs
Browser bookmarks are the easiest way to quickly save online sources. Use drag and drop to place links into your browser's toolbar. Rename the bookmarks or sort them into folders.
In your browser, you'll also find the option to automatically open all tabs the next time you open the browser. You can think of these open tabs as a kind of to-do list: these are the websites that initially looked interesting, and now you need to decide what to do with them. Try to keep your bookmarks from expanding beyond the width of your screen.
With a browser extension like Pocket you can save interesting online content that you can later access on different devices.
Most reference management programs also offer a way to save online contents. For example, the Zotero Connector offers an import button next to the address bar in your browser.
The Citavi Picker "picks” out the metadata from websites and adds them to your project. Just right-click the webpage and choose to add the webpage as a reference.
The advantage of using a reference management program is that your online sources are saved in the same place as all of your other sources.
Webpages and online articles can also be saved in a folder on your computer in a folder or printed out and placed in a physical folder.
Step 2: Select
Consciously select the sources you will examine more closely to make sure that your collection does not grow out of control.
How can you tell if a source is relevant to you topic? In journal articles, take a look at the abstract to get a quick overview of a study's research question, methods, and results.
If the source doesn't seem to fit your paper topic, get rid of it.
In the age of fake news, it's especially important to examine everything you find online with a critical eye. Try to always determine who the author of a source is. Be skeptical if the author is an organization and examine closely whether the information on the page is objective or has been skewed to market something or promote a certain political view. If a source seems dubious, you should not waste any more time with it. Since it's sometimes hard to judge a source's validity, we recommend consulting this infographic from the International Federation of Library Associations, an international non-profit organization that works to further information literacy education around the world.
If a source's contents seem relevant and you want to later analyze it in more detail, make a note of your appraisal so you don't waste time assessing it a second time by accident. Most software programs or online tools will let you tag items, move them into folders or groups, assign ratings, or save notes.
Step 3: Inspect
Now you can begin working with your sources more closely. To be efficient during this phase, we recommend taking a systematic approach.
First, try to limit the time you spend with each source. You can do this by reading in a targeted way. For example, if you found an ebook containing contributions from many different authors, only select the ones that are actually relevant for further analysis.
In addition, don't just start at the beginning and read each text straight through to the end. Instead, use the text's structural elements to get a good idea of its contents. Read the abstract if one is available, skim through headings or chapters, and take a close look at the introduction and conclusion. By reading the conclusion first you can quickly get a sense of the most important findings of the text. If these are relevant to your topic, you can then closely read and analyze the sections that best apply, for example, the methodology used in a study's design.
At times you'll come across texts or ideas that interest you but that don't directly pertain to your topic. Set them aside so you don't lose your focus and then come back to them if you have enough time after completing your other work. View off-topic reading as a reward for finishing tasks more directly related to your thesis topic.
We hope that the three steps above will help you regain control over your sources the next time your inner hoarder kicks in.
Which tools or methods do you use to gather interesting sources?
If you have a tendency to hoard sources, how do you set limits for yourself?
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About Jana Behrendt
Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.