A piece of literature review wisdom I learned the hard way

Woman searching for reference with binocularsThis may very well seem obvious. It does to me. Well it does now at least. To be honest, it’s been so long since I made this mistake that I can’t believe I ever did it. However I did do it, and not just the once. The problem is for most people, they also learn it the hard way. You see it goes a little something like this;

You read an interesting idea from your notes to use in your literature review.

You read a little further to see what other information you have written.

You paraphrase your notes in your literature review.

You go to put the reference in and… where is it? Where is the reference. I must have written it down. Did I write it down?

Where the *insert obscenity here* did I get this from syndrome

Do not mistake the above sentence for a flippant remark. It is far from flippant. It’s deadly serious. I have shouted these words in desperation, followed by the needless sacrifice of a beautiful idea for the lack of a reference that I knew existed…somewhere.

There is an obvious moral to this story which is to always record your references, whenever you make a note. Please, if you have never made the mistake before, believe me when I say that it is painful and it is to be avoided at all costs.

I would strongly advise you to record your references in a reference manager as you go along, and format the references as you go. This allows you to write references in your notes, and more importantly locate the reference sources very easily.

However, I totally empathise that is is not always convenient, especially in the heat of battle when you submerged in papers and getting into a good reading and writing rhythm. However, even if it not convenient to stop writing to save a reference in a reference manager, you can still write it down in your notes. The key is that you can locate the reference when you come to re-read your notes. Most of the time, just a surname and a year will be enough to find your paper again.

A word of caution

Although I know it’s not always convenient to save your references at the very moment you make notes, you MUST save them soon after. In other words, at the end on a reading or writing session. Take 15 or 30 minutes to save all of your references in your reference manager and download them in pdf format. This will save you time. A whole lot of time. However, better than that, it will save you the pain of having to format your references all in one go. And believe me this is a pain. I did half of my references all in one go because I was disorganised. The second half of my references, I formatted and organised as I went along. Believe me when I say, there is no substitute for saving references as you go along.

The moral of the story

Always write down where you got your ideas from. If you don’t, you will frustrated at best, and accused of plagiarism at worst. It’s not worth the risk.

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