Every day at the Reference Desk we are exposed to what some people might uncharitably call student disorganization: laptops with 80 pdfs on the desktop, or browsers with 25 tabs open to different papers. Students scramble through these messes as they talk to us. But in fairness, it is not dissimilar to desks piled high with physical papers and books. (Where oh where did I put that paper by Professor Jennifer Smith?)

The truth is that the acts of collecting and then FINDING all the “stuff” we MIGHT be using in a particular research project, create age-old problems. Some might argue that if the stuff is in print, stacks and files can be created that help organize it. But, honestly, those stacks and files often do not get created. And are they really any different than students creating folders on their laptops to dump stuff into?

Another truth is that what appears to be disorganization is often part of the evolution of a person’s thought process. Searching through pages, triangulating on ideas, sifting back and forth – those are intellectual activities that can be part of the development of new ideas and the finding of new directions. Real organization of our stuff takes place when our thinking has evolved to the point that we know what our questions are and where we might be taking our ideas.

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Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

We all know that programs such as RefWorks can make the creation of correctly formatted footnotes/endnotes/in-text citations and bibliographies much easier. It’s a better software to use than EasyBib (which many students use before coming to college), although it lacks the sophistication of EndNote or Zotero, which many people on the graduate level and above use. For most projects RefWorks works well, and students can save and transport their materials anywhere, and, if they wish, eventually move their citations to one of the more sophisticated systems. A vast majority of colleges and universities offer access to RefWorks. (For a more detailed description of using RefWorks, go to Andrew Lopez’s post on this blog.

But it is easy to get hung up on this formal use of RefWorks for producing the footnotes/endnotes/bibliographies etc. for research papers and projects. The truth is, it can have equal value as being a storage and organizational tool for the things we collect for research projects. Like clearing stacks of paper and books off of our physical desks, it can clear the top of our virtual desktops.

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If you are a student who prefers to read digitally and never have stacks of paper, consider whether your virtual desktop is as messy as your friend’s or professor’s physical desk.

If you are a faculty member, you can help simplify many students’ lives by suggesting that they use this organizational tool. You might even (if you don’t already use a citation manager) consider signing up for it yourself. It is robust enough to handle many publication projects.

So, think about stashing your stuff. Finding things will be easier, and recycling is never a problem.

Sign up here. If you have questions when you are using it, come to Reference and ask for help.

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