Daily Archives: April 4, 2019

In which I gripe about reference management software

Here’s something I wish I’d known before I started using Zotero: While it’s handy for generating footnotes and bibliographic entries, it suuuuuuucks when it comes to note taking.  In fact, I don’t even know why Zotero, EndNote, and other reference management programs include a note taking function.

When I’m writing, I want all the information I need in front of me and in the order in which I must enter it into my draft.

Consider the old fashioned, physical index card, a humble tool employed by generations of historians past.  An elegant weapon, one might say, from a more civilized age.

Andrew Powers at English Wikipedia [Public domain]

Sure, writing out hundreds or thousands of them over the course of a research project is laborious.  And if you lose them or your office catches fire, you’re screwed.  But in terms of flexibility in organizing and sorting information, you can’t beat them.  You can stack them, shuffle them, and tack them to a board in whatever order best suits your project.  When you’re ready to write, each little nugget of information is right where you need it.

Now consider Zotero’s electronic “note cards.”  You can fill out as many as you want for each source.  But what if you need one piece of info from that source in your first dissertation chapter, and another piece from the same source in your third chapter?

I mean, Zotero’s notes are fully text-searchable, but who wants to do a word search to find a particular piece of information while you’re writing?

What this means is that Zotero and other reference management applications add an unnecessary step in the research and writing process.  After you’ve assembled your sources and taken notes, you then have to pull your notes out of the application and rearrange them into the proper order, either by printing them out or exporting/pasting the contents into another application.

Next time I take on a major research project, I think I might try taking notes in Scrivener, or perhaps just a standard word processing program.  Either way, the only thing I’ll be using reference management applications for from now on is generating footnotes and bibliographies.

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