Developing Your Research Process

Many articles have been posted about this topic, I just wanted a quick reference for my peers who are interested. I provide links to the UCSB resources, but the advice can generalize to access at other universities.

Motivation: The ability to develop good research questions and understand bodies of previous work can be greatly aided by having a good workflow process. Once you become familiar with all the tools the process for developing proposals or writing papers will be much less stressful, and you can devote mental energy to thinking about your actual research.

Process: These are the basic steps I’ll go over.

  • search for papers in indexes
  • organize papers with citation managers
  • create bibliographies from organized citations

First, how to search for papers.

Search for Papers from Your Library Website

At academic institutions you will probably access online journals and resources through your library website’s Article Index and Research Databases page (link for UCSB). At UCSB the link to the Index page looks like this:


But which index search should I use? These web pages almost always suck, so it can be confusing. Most of the links on these pages give access to search databases, but you mainly just want to find a few that work well and use those every time. Start with the most popular and try new ones if you can’t find something specific. Ultimately the goal is to get the PDF version of the papers you may be interested in.

These are the most popular: Academic Complete, Science Direct, and Scopus (not at UCSB, dammit). The interfaces vary, but you can try them out to get a feel. These sites detect your UCSB login to identify your access level (the university pays these companies for access). If you’ve logged in on the library page, the index should recognize your access with an indicator at the top-right (this one from Science Direct).


Once you are able to download the several PDF articles/books you are interested in, you can use a citation manager to organize and keep track of all of them for you.

Use Mendeley to Organize Papers

You’ve downloaded the PDF files to your computer, and are ready to read them. First, make an account and download the Mendeley software. Fortunately they provide plenty of documentation for navigating Mendeley, I’ll just focus on the steps important for your process.

You’ll be importing articles into Mendeley, but the important parts are to be able to organize and take notes on them.

Organize Papers

Mental categorization of the work can be greatly aided by the folder feature in Mendeley. On the left of the Mendeley window you can right click to add new folders, rename folders, or drag them to become subfolders.


Documents can belong to multiple folders, so I usually use a top level folder for a research project and then subfolders for categorizing different subtopics within that project. When I’m ready to write a paper I create a new folder in the project and simply include documents from the subtopics I want. When all citations for a paper are in a single folder it is very fast to add them to your document.

Take Notes on the Papers

Taking notes may help you read through and understand your articles completely. Three ways to take notes on papers in Mendeley: highlight, comment, and use the notes box.

Highlighting lines in your document is easy. Simply select the text, right click and say “highlight”.


Using the same menu, you can also add comments. These notes can be helpful for keeping track of important points in the paper.


All the notes are saved to your Mendeley account and can be accessed from your computers, but you can also export them to a PDF for sharing with your colleagues by going to File->Export PDF With Annotations.. (when the document is open).

There is also a Notes section in Mendeley where you can write a little text on what the document is about or why it is relevant. This will sync across your devices.


Synchronize Across the Web

The cool thing about Mendeley is the ability to access your citations and documents from anywhere, including your phone, tablet, or even public computers. Because Mendeley requires a login, it’s as simple as just hitting the “Sync” button at the top of the interface.


Once you can organize, annotate, and sync your work across devices, it’s time to generate bibliographies for your work.

Generate Bibliography for Latex or Word

You’ve been using Mendeley to organize and annotate the articles you want to use to build an argument for your work. Now it’s time to get the citations from Mendeley into your software. I provide three possible explanations, depending on what your aim is.

Export Single Formatted Citation

In some cases, you may just want to extract the citation for a single document into a formatted text string. Find the document in Mendeley, right click it, and Copy As -> Formatted Citation.


Then you can simply paste it into your word document or email or whatever it is that you are writing. For documents with more than 3 citations, I recommend using one of the below methods for exporting the complete bibliography.

Use the MS Word Plugin

I’ve never used this personally because I strongly prefer Latex over word. I’ve heard and experienced horror stories about using Word to manage academic papers (or even dissertations).

If you still want to use it, there is a Mendeley Word Plugin you can get for Windows. When Mendeley and the Word Plugin are running on your computer it will automatically transfer bibliography information to Word. See this video for a better explanation.

Use a Latex BibTex File

Latex is a text-based language you can use to write your documents. When the text is compiled it will produce a formatted pdf of your document. The coolest feature of Latex is the ability to manage (and automatically order) your bibliography through an extension called BibTex. This means you have a text file with the extension “.bib” where you store all of your citation information.

To get citation info from Mendeley you just select all the documents you want to include, right-click and select Copy As -> BibTex Entry. Then you can paste the text into your ‘.bib’ folder.

Learning Latex is not trivial, but it is worth it. If you want to get started, I recommend using a web-based software called ShareLatex. They have beginner tutorials and once you are familiar you can use this tutorial to learn how to manage your bibliography.



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