Organising your material


How do you organise your materials to allow you to write a cohesive literature review without jumping around in your papers and losing the plot? I feel like I'm walking in quick sand territory - one minute a paper seems totally useless and then two days later it's the bible and a paper I thought was priceless a few days before is now not worth 'the paper it's printed on. Argh!!

I did several large literature searches on related themes and now that the final topic has been decided I can select my primary batch of key papers. However the project involves all of these other related themes so I have a LOT of additional material to go through.

I thought about my usual method of writing a short summary for each paper I read listing the key words and themes but this is taking me forever and now the sup wants the literature review in by the end of the week!

I feel as though I've been swallowed by the literature and I can't find the thread that will lead me back out. I used to swear by filing and labels but 'the maleable nature of the project means that one paper can move between methods, lit rev, and ethics all in one week!

What do you guys do to organise yourselves?


For my literature review I searched and obtained numerous papers which I filed into key areas. From this I would sort out the most prominent papers to review first which involved highlighting key pints in the paper and typing this out in a literature review. Subsequent papers were then reviewed and slotted into themes within the literaure review. Each themed section was modified to compare, contrast and dismiss as appropriate. I would note that for the thesis write-up, post experimental work, the literature reviews undertaken in the early PhD did not feature in my final literature review. This is because the final results and findings will shape and focus the lit review more specifically. My original literature reviews were fairly broad for the topic. Subsequently I was still ordering papers in the write-up phase as they be new to the area or slightly differently orientated compared to the original searches.


Hi there,

Thanks for your reply. That is essentially what I do when weaving the existing literature into my review so it's good to know someone else does it in a similar way. However what I'm really stuck with is the quantity of the material and the fluctuating nature of it - what are people doing to keep track of their reading - index cards? Electronic records on Word or Excel? Post-its? Keeping things in envelopes specific to each chapter?

My existing methods were fine for undergrad and Masters but they are not flexible enough to keep up with the amount of reading in a phd...

I doubt that anything I write now will appear in the final thesis too but I need to produce a literature review in order to get the project through various Ethics Committees and the like...


Milly_Cat, I'd recommend using Mendeley or a program like it. I've only started using it the past few months but I wish I had known about it earlier. It really does make organising and note taking easier, and all without drowning in a sea of print offs as well.

I basically download all my papers into one folder, the program scans the folder and then adds them all to the program. From there I can organise the papers into different groups, for example I could have a collection of papers that look at theory X, one for those looking at Y, and a folder for those comparing the two. The same paper could potentially be in each one so I don't miss it later on.
Which might be useful for you. You could have papers organised into methods, lit review etc.

It also lets you highlight and add notes directly onto the papers. So if you find a quote you might need later just highlight it and move on, and it'll save some searching later. I tend to add post it notes to the paper as well at key area's as I read through, summarising findings etc. So if I need to come back to it later I can speed things up by just checking out my summaries.

Before hand I'd collect all my papers into individual folders by topic or I'd alphabetise them by first author. It was very clunky but I managed. From there I'd write summaries of the papers as I read them and added them to one big word document for certain topics. I had a reference list of all the citations as well that I colour coded.


I'm using Zotero, which works a little like Mendeley. I'm hoping that I'm lucky as I've started using it right at the start of my literature collection and hoping if I'm careful in tagging etc. I should be able to use all the literature I find coherently...

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ooh I just write as I go - I never read anything and then put it down. I read, then write, then read, then write until I have it all written.

If I read a sentence of something that triggers a little lightbulb I'll copy and paste it into Microsoft One Note - with a little note about where I think it could fit in. And every month or so I go through to see if there's something in my one note file that may help what I'm doing currently :-)


I used EndNote to keep a record of what I'd read, together with my notes/summaries of what each book/paper was about. I was a humanities student, and only a small fraction of what I read was available in PDF form. So for lots of things I had photocopies. I have a filing cabinet just for these in my office/study at home.

I also used mind mapping techniques to figure out how to structure these in my literature survey. And, at times, even old fashioned index cards could be useful. Anything to get my brain working.

My literature review was very selective though. I covered a lot of material, but focused primarily on those most relevant to my research. I think it's important to be selective, not just thorough. Otherwise it can risk becoming a brain dump.