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Using Digital Tools for Organizing Research

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Students new to college-level research may struggle with organizing their research ideas, particularly after they've gathered their sources and are making choices about how to use those sources. Fortunately, there are a lot of digital tools that can facilitate students' work and engender best research practices for them. Here are a few suggestions for digital tools that can help students organize their research and determine how to cluster similar ideas and sequence them.


In PearlTrees, users students can create curated collections of source material. Rather than viewing sources in a long and linear list, PearlTrees allows students to view their sources more visually; when uploaded, the source appears as a square block that can be dragged to different places on the page. Students also have the ability to add in text “blocks” to separate out their sources so that they can narrativize the way that they’re organizing the conversations between their sources. Source material can be uploaded in the forms of PDFs, Word documents, or Web links.


A link manager, Papaly allows users to organize any Web sources (including links to PDFs from scholarly journals) in the form of visual blocks. Rather than viewing sources in a long and linear list, Papaly users can create categories and sub-categories in which to organize their links (for example, students might create a category for links about “Writing Tutor Pedagogy,” and a sub-category might be “Strategies for Managing Time” and/or “Strategies for Giving Sentence-Level Feedback”).


Zotero is a popular citation management tool for academics. An open source and free program, Zotero allows users to generate reference lists by entering in the publication information for individual sources. While users need to enter in the citations manually, Zotero will generate automatic Works Cited/References lists in a variety of academic styles. Users can also add tags to Zotero entries, so that users wanting to organize and search for particular sources by keywords can do so.


Mendeley is another popular citation management tool for academics. Its functionality is more similar than different to Zotero’s; the main difference is that users can annotate and highlight source material inside the Mendeley interface (this is not possible in Zotero).