PhD Tips: Bibliographic software – A researcher’s dream


Today I’d like to talk a little about organization as it pertains to your research.

One of the most critical tools at your disposal is a so-called bibliographic software (now referred to as Bib Software).  I personally believe it is one of the top three resources for every researcher.  These include:

  • The word processor (what you will use to draft and write your dissertation)
  • The note taking software (sometimes the same with a word processor or sometimes a different program altogether.  See my post Note taking software for my thoughts on this!)
  • The bib software (a resource to organize your bibliography, though it does much more than this)

The Bibliography Software

As you go about your research, you will be looking up and using 100s of bibliographic resources.  The most common are books and articles on your subject, but resources can also include electronic downloads, audio files, newspaper articles, interviews, etc.

The list is quite extensive and any manual for writers (i.e. Chicago Manual of Style, Turabian Manual for Writers) will contain a lengthy list of these potential resources.  Thus, your first task is to be able to manage, sort, organize and use these resources in the most efficient and productive way.  Enter the Bib software.

But which one?

I cannot recommend one product over another because I haven’t had experience with them.  And besides, everyone has a favorite program that they use.

EndNote is perhaps the most common bib software, Sente is another popular module.  Nota Bene (for PC only) is a combination word processor, note taker and Bib software that many researches in the U.K. swear by.  I know of one professor who recommends it to all of his research students.

I use Zotero, which is a free, open source Bib software that gets attached to your Mozilla Firefox browser.  I like Zotero for several reasons:

  1. It is free (though in all fairness, there are multiple free bib software programs you can download.)
  2. It is quite robust
  3. Because it is open-source, a community of very invested users are continually fixing various issues,  adding enhancements, and providing a vibrant forum for your questions to be answered
  4. It resides in my browser.  Because much of the research I do is on-line (in WorldCat, ATLA Databse, etc.) it is always open when I am browsing
  5. It integrates with Microsoft Word’s footnote and bibliography functions (a big plus as you begin drafting and writing so that you don’t have to create your footnotes by hand)

That’s my plug for Zotero; however, the important thing is to make a bibliographic software a part of your daily researching routine.

Organizing your bibliography

The most common function for a Bib software is obviously to serve as a repository for all of the literature and bibliographic resources you will be using in your dissertation.

Many resource sites (WorldCat, ATLA Database, JSTOR, etc) have an automatic export function, which copies the bibliographic information from their site directly into your Bib Software.  Though this saves you from typing in the information, you will still need to scan the entry to make sure it is up to publishing standards.  (For example, sometimes each word of the title of a book is not capitalized.)

IMPORTANT: It is very important that you take down bibliographic information the moment you have the resource in hand, and that you take it down carefully.

When I export information from an Internet library, I tag that record as “Need to Verify Bibliography.”  This way, when I am physically at a library, I will track down the resource and verify all of the pertinent data.  I then tag that entry as “Bibliography Verified.”  This gives me the comfort and peace of mind that if I begin using this entry in my dissertation draft it is up to publishing standards.

The Beauty of Tagging

I have mentioned tags, and this is also a critical part of the organizational potential of a Bib Software.  You can have an unlimited number of tags added to each bibliographic record.

For example, my dissertation is on the Speeches of Acts.  The tags I can use for each record (depending on its content) are multiple: “The Speeches of Acts,” “Paul’s Speeches in Acts,” “Genre of the Speeches,” “Miletus Speech – Structure,” “Miletus Speech – Form”…you get the picture.

Every resource can potentially be used in different parts of your dissertation.  Tagging a resource with an appropriate identifier (chapter, book, verse, methodology) gives you the ability to find the appropriate resources when you need them.

But you can also tag resources in the following ways (the list is only limited by your specific needs):

  • Verify bibliography (means you need to get a physical book or article to check the accuracy of the entry)
  • Need to check out (Tag records as you write and when you arrive at the library, click on this tag to know what you need for the next stage of research)
  • Library where found (makes tracking down a resource so much easier)
  • Need to read
  • Author, topic, book, verse, methodology

Unlimited Attachments

Each record entry in a Bib Software can have multiple attachments and notes.  I create a note for each record that gives the central argument for the key resources I am using in my dissertation.  I also create notes to remind me of pages that I should read, where specific information might be found, important content, etc.

I have attached PDFs of articles to the article entry itself.  You can attach book reviews or outlines, links to web pages, the Worldcat Record, or the ATLA record.

Historical Picture of Your Resources

The Zotero software allows you to create a histograph showing a list of books you have selected on a historical time line.  This is great to get a picture of the history of research in your particular area or to remind you where you might have gaps (i.e. perhaps you need more recent literature.)

Other Uses

You can also create stand-alone notes in Zotero (and I would think in other Bib Software).  Thus, I have a few odds and ends entries to keep track of proper writing style and conventions (for example, use of quotes, placement of footnote numbers, etc. which can be different between the U.S. and U.K.)

Important: Find out what conventions you must use in your writing from your school (abbreviations, footnote styles, placement, etc.) and then stick with that convention.  Apply it to your work the first time you set down to write.  (You can read an entire post of the importance of this step here: Be Consistent When You Write)

I also keep an attachment of the SBL Handbook of Style which is used extensively in the Biblical Studies writing / research world and which contains the most common publishing formats used by its members.  This includes abbreviations of biblical and non-biblical books and other important conventions.  The list of resources you could keep at your ready disposal is endless.

Finally, I have even heard of some people using a Bib software as a note taking software.  Because you can have an unlimited number of notes, I suppose this is a real possibility allowing you to reference a book or article and all of your notes on that book in one place.

The Bib Software in Writing

Apart from the organization of your bibliography, the other benefit is during the drafting and writing stage.  You want to be able to click a button, choose a resource, add a page number, and have your word processor plug-in the right footnote in the right format.

If you make a change to the original record, a simple click in your word processor will grab the most up-to-date information and rewrite your footnote for you.

If a resource is used for the second time, you want to have a shorter entry automatically created for you.  If the same resource follows, you want your Ibids to also be created automatically.  And if an Ibid. or shortened footnote is moved to a first use section of your dissertation, your word processor should adjust each entry after that accordingly.  These are not the issues you want to focus on as you write.  Your job is to create content.  The mechanics of footnotes (style, abbreviated, etc.) should be left to your software tools.

Finally, a Bib Software that is integrated with your word processor will create a completed bibliography based on the footnotes in your dissertation.

A Great Tool

I could go on and on raving about this most important organization tool.  It is a must for any researcher and it has made me much more efficient and saved me countless headaches.

I should finally mention that getting into a habit of properly using this tool has given me a great peace of mind.  I can freely use the completed entries in my writing to hand to a supervisor or other colleagues knowing that each entry has been scrutinized and is ready for publication.

Happy organizing!

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5 Responses to PhD Tips: Bibliographic software – A researcher’s dream

  1. Pingback: Software Tip #2 – Using a short title for footnotes | Phd and Dissertation Advice

  2. Pingback: PhD Advice: Software Tip #2 – Using a short title for footnotes | Phd and Dissertation Advice

  3. Pingback: PhD Tips: Note-taking Software for Writing a PhD | Phd Tips and Dissertation Advice

  4. Florian says:

    great blog! thanks a lot for the work you put into it.
    I’ve gotten interested in References and databases myself, during my diploma-thesis times (so long long ago); I think I’ve tried every reference-manager out there, but they all could do either/or: either manage your references and provide portation to word processors, or manage your PDFs.
    Zotero can do both, but the fact that its a plugin is its biggest drawback when it comes to file-organization. I use Papers (Mac & Windows) since the public beta version, and since version 2 the program has gotten magic manuscript, which basically integrates word-processor syndication as well.

    I cannot believe, that in sciences, people still manage their PDFs manually…There is so much great stuff out there that saves you time, and gives you so much more capabilities of organizing…

    anyway, love the work.
    take care,

    • Florian:

      Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t aware of Papers.

      I tend not to be very innovative when it comes to my bibliography (which is ironic, since I tell everyone I meet in my regular work that they must be creative and innovative in their vocations…)

      Glad the site could be a source of help for you.


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