Managing Your Literature

I’m putting my librarian hat on for today’s post as we’re looking at citation managers. There’s a lot to love about this type of software (easy citation formatting!!!) but in essence, they’re a tool for managing a specific type of data: literature.

Thinking about citation management as a data management issue, we can start applying some of the principles of the latter to the former.

Choosing a tool
There are lots of great citation managers out there and they all perform in roughly the same ways. As citations can be exported and imported, you won’t be locked into any one platform, so I would pick something that fits in your research workflow. Popular options include Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote; if I had to recommend one, I would opt for Zotero due to its open platform.

Like any other data, organizing your citations will help you later in finding what you need (though universal search in most tools is good). The key is: have a system and stick with it. The most common way to organize literature is by project/paper and you can definitely take advantage of subfolders for further organization.

File naming
Citation managers allow users to upload article pdf’s along with citation information, which can be helpful for keeping everything in one place; this isn’t a necessary practice, more of a personal workflow choice. So while you may not need to have nicely named pdf files if they live in your citation manager (as you can easily search for them), I still recommend using good names for your pdf’s so you can move them in and out of the tool. The name scheme I like for my literature is “FirstAuthorLastName_YYYY_ShortTitle.pdf”, e.g. “Briney_2018_TheProblemWithDates.pdf“.

Data quality control
My colleague who teaches students about citation management has a great demonstration where she’s imported the same reference from three different source (the journal, a database, and Google Scholar) into the citation manager, resulting in three slightly different records. So even if your import is automatic, performing quality control is a still good idea. Optimal times to do this are at time of citation import and as you do the final proof of a manuscript.

I’m a big fan of documentation and I see two good ways to document the literature you keep in your citation manager. The first is to use any built-in notes tool that your citation manager provides. The second is to keep good notes yourself and be clear as to which citation you are referring (good file naming can also help reinforce this connection). Either way, I recommend making notes on articles if you’re doing a lot of reading or you’re likely to loose track of which article is which over time.

Data backup
Like any other data source, you should back up your citation library. Export citations and save them to a file (I use the BibTeX format), then back this file up. With many citation managers using cloud based storage, this gives an added layer of security and also allows you to easily switch platforms.

Data sharing
Citation sharing has gotten a lot easier in the past decade as citation managers have moved their content into the cloud. At this point, data sharing is more of a permissions issue in making sure the right people have access to the right content.

If you’re using a citation manager, you’re probably doing many of the above practices. Still, I think it’s a valuable exercise to think of citations as data to make sure that we’re caring for this information in the best possible way!