We have covered how to search efficiently and how to read and take notes like a pro, however it is important to organise all your material as you go to avoid a mountainous pile of notes and papers that makes writing the review harder. Now this can be done in several ways, and your organisation will vary depending on your project and how you’d like to write your review, but here are a few suggestions.
A basic excel spreadsheet can work great as a reading log to document key points from papers you have read and allow you to find papers easily. This can be especially useful if you are completing a meta-analysis as all your data and sources can be in one place, but this does not work as well for documents of detailed notes.
The next step is to ensure you are organising your literature whilst collating so that you can find papers again and start to make connections between sources. Making patterns and categories for your notes is personal decision, but putting your notes and references in folders with headings or even subheadings can really help you determine what the important concepts are you’d like to cover. These folders can be created in your reference management software or on word depending on where you are storing your information, and here are some ideas for categories:
- Location (this could be of the scholar, the research, the author’s opinion in a debate)
- Alphabetically (especially useful for your bibliography)
- Time (publishing date, the time period being discussed in the article- this approach helps determine how ideas and views have changed over time)
- Category (the most common method, using concepts, topics and ideas as the basis for organising)
- Hierarchy (exerting critical judgment on each of your categories: is one school of thought or way of doing things described in the literature superior to the others? Is one idea more practical and useful than another idea – or more theoretically interesting and elegant? Why?)
Richard Wurzman argues these are the only ways to organise information, but feel free to prove him wrong. You can organise based on the opinions different sources have in a certain debated topic, group based on the question being answered or on the author or journal where the paper is published. Sources will likely overlap your categories, that’s ok, just add them to both. This will help you make links and critically discuss later.
If you are producing a systematic review, you may have already designed your categories for organisation based on the PICO method and your established criteria. Whichever way you decide to organise your sources and notes, it is important to organise throughout so that you can easily find material you have worked so hard to create and will make the writing process much easier.