I am beginning the first phase of my dissertation research (the topical), and I was wondering if anyone had any specific tips about how to keep track and organize articles, reading notes, etc. and perhaps any tips on how to go about working through a large body of literature. Do you take notes on every article? If so, how much time do you spend summarizing an article? How many articles/chapters do you read per day?
Thus far, I have been logging everything in a word document, but it's getting out of control...I really need a better (and hopefully less stressful) system
I really appreciate any advice.
If there's one thing I've learned from the various discussions of research and writing strategies on this blog and others, it's this: there's no one way. I've got things that work ok for me and various anonymouses have things that work for them, but there's nothing anyone can tell you that will be guaranteed to work. Moreover, the dissertation is a learning experience. You're supposed to struggle with it. I know you know all this, but it bears emphasizing. If you knew what you were doing, it wouldn't be a learning experience to do it.
When I'm in reading/research mode, I generally don't compile a formal bibliography or anything like that. Annotated or otherwise. I make use of a couple of bibliography/PDF organization applications, BibDesk and Mendeley (I don't really like Mendeley; I use it because it's free), and I use keywords to help stay organized. But that's about it.
Then I just sort of read, at whatever pace feels right. I start by taking notes in the document itself, be it a book, JSTOR printout, or PDF document, and I start taking more detailed notes in a separate medium only if I can see that the article (or book or whatever) is going to end up being important. But I don't try to read a certain number of things—articles, pages, whatever—per day. I try to give each thing the attention it deserves; sometimes that means breezing through, and sometimes that means spending a week or more on one article.
When I'm dealing with an important article, book, or chapter, I open a .tex file and take notes in it. Depending on where I am in the project, this might be a separate file devoted just to this one article (or whatever), or it might be section in a larger document. Here, I try to articulate the views and the arguments, how the author defends the premises, how the author responds to criticisms, how the material fits into the larger picture, and my own reactions to the material. At this stage I am meticulous about documentation. I quote passages that support my interpretation and cite page numbers. Always cite page numbers. Always. I think about how the material should be organized—I think about what order things should go in. Often, this is not the order in which it appears in the source text. I find that I end up spending a lot of time moving stuff around—I find that I struggle with organizing the ideas more than almost anything else.
At this stage, the distinction between “taking notes” and “drafting” is pretty thin. A lot of the time, I'm taking notes in the actual document I'm writing. However, I still try to be careful in distinguishing between what we might think of as “notes” and what we might think of as “writing”—that is, the very rough “drafty” stuff and the semi-polished stuff that I'm more-or-less satisfied with. (Of course, everything is subject to revision, but some things are more subject than others.) Here I find LaTeX's percent signs to be very valuable. Drafty stuff gets a percent sign with a [bracketed label] indicating why it's percentaged. When the passage is ready for promotion, I delete the percent sign and a new paragraph is born. This also lets me excise material in a slow, noncommittal way. I find that those percent signs get a lot of use.
So, to get back to 8:56's specific questions: I take notes on every article, but often just in the article itself and not necessarily in a separate medium; the amount of time I spend on an article depends on its importance for my project—although I probably wouldn't spend much time summarizing the article, exactly, but would spend whatever time was necessary to summarize the particular arguments or views or whatever that were pertinent; the number of articles/chapters I read in a day depends on the articles and chapters. I don't try to keep summaries of everything in one document; I don't even try to keep summaries of everything.
A dissertation is obviously a big project, and it's obviously going to be difficult to keep track of all your research. So I wouldn't try to keep track of it all in the same place. I'd carve the material up into manageable bits. It is, obviously, customary to organize one's dissertation into chapters, so I'd start there. Maybe organize into sections or subsections if there's a particular chapter that's getting unwieldy. But I suspect that the kind of annotated bibliography 8:56 alludes to, containing all your research for your dissertation, is going to be more trouble than it's worth and will cause you to spend more time than you should on articles and chapters that aren't central enough to your project to be worth it. And, as 8:56 mentions, it will be hard to keep a document like that organized, and so the document wouldn't even be particularly useful.
Anyways, that's what I think. What do you think?