Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Managing Your Research Notes and Citations

A student asked today whether law students commonly use one database system for managing citations -- as many students and scholars in other fields use EndNote, for instance.

Law has been slower than other fields to adopt bibliographic management software, but there are some tools you can use.

EndNote, RefWorks, Zotero

The University of Washington Libraries makes available to the UW community web versions of both EndNote and RefWorks. See this page of Citation and Writing Guides, middle column.

Both EndNote and RefWorks have output formats for legal citations (using The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation)). They work best for secondary sources -- journal articles, magazine articles, books, and so on. I have a lot of citations in a RefWorks database and it works well.

Zotero is an add-on for the Firefox browser. it enables users to organize documents from many types of sources -- newspapers, journals, websites, etc. Users can sort and take notes on the material they gather. Just last month Zotero added "Bluebook Law Review" to its list of available output styles. The examples given are for secondary sources.

I haven't used Zotero myself, but it looks pretty cool. Pablo Sandoval, who was a law library intern last year, used -- and liked -- Zotero a lot. See his posts here and here.

Easy Export?

One thing that's attractive in a citation management tool is being able to export citations from whatever database you're using directly into your own database. For instance, if you search in LegalTrac and find a list of law journal articles, you can pretty easily export them to EndNote or RefWorks without having to retype everything. Typically, you click on export format, select the one you want, and there you go. The same is true if you find books in a library catalog.

One challenge for law is that a lot of the databases we love to use don't allow easy export. Like for instance LexisNexis and Westlaw.

It's not that they couldn't do it. This morning I gave a talk to undergraduates and showed them LexisNexis Academic, the version of LexisNexis that's marketed to colleges. When we looked at a law review article online, there were options to print, email, download, or ... well, I didn't recognize that last icon. Turns out, it's an option to export the citation in RefWorks format. I later tried it out -- it didn't populate the fields exactly right, but it was still better to have most of the information plopped into my RefWorks account and clean it up than to have to start from scratch. LexisNexis Academic has that option for cases, too.

Westlaw's parent company, Thomson Reuters, also owns EndNote, but so far that hasn't led Westlaw to make it easy to export a list of citations in EndNote format. (Thomson Reuters sued Zotero's creators, claiming that they had reverse engineered EndNote. The lawsuit was dismissed in June. See this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Someone who wants to be able to use Zotero for legal materials has a wiki, named Zotero-for-lawyers, that has "translators" to extract citation information from a document and send it to your Zotero account. It includes HeinOnline, SSRN, the e-CFR, Cornell's Legal Information Institute, and a few other sites.

Challenges for Primary Sources

RefWorks, EndNote, and Zotero all do better with secondary legal materials than with primary legal materials. Here are a few of my thoughts:

For primary materials, you need to consider who you're writing for. If you are writing for a Washington Court, you need to follow the the Washington Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions Style Sheet. If you're writing for a law review, the Bluebook says not to give parallel citations to state cases -- just use the regional reporter citations. But within the state, you do need parallel citations. If you're writing for a law review, you'll abbreviation Revised Code of Washington "Wash. Rev. Code," but if you're in Washington, you'll abbreviate it "RCW."

Citation of primary materials is often dependent on context. If you want to talk about the history of a statute -- say, what was going on when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- you cite it one way, but if you want to cite it as it's in effect today, with amendments, you'll cite it another way. Or suppose you're talking about a case that had Issues A, B, and C, and the case was reversed on Issue B. If you want to cite it for Issue A, then you'll add "rev'd on other grounds" and cite the later case. But if you want to cite it for Issue B, then you'll just say "rev'd" before the later citation. It's going to be hard for programmers to work all this into their bibliographic management systems.

In Practice . . .

I think people will find different approaches that work well for them. What you do might vary from project to project, or it might develop over time (and as developers come out with new tools to help us).

I think I'm not alone in straddling old and new technologies. Here are some of the ways I managed information for my last article (10-12 pages):
  • I emailed from Westlaw some chapters from a treatise and annotations from U.S.C.A., and then I sent them to my Kindle.
  • I read them on my Kindle and wrote down case citations on 3x5 cards. Then I used Find to retrieve them on Westlaw, emailed them, and sent them to my Kindle to skim.
  • I used HeinOnline for old Congressional Records. Looking through index entries, I jotted down page numbers on 3x5 cards.
  • I downloaded PDFs of the Congressional Record pages I used. And I downloaded PDFs of law review articles. And I kept these all in a folder on my desktop.
  • I entered citations of several of the law reviews into my RefWorks account (but I didn't use RefWorks when I was actively writing -- I looked at the citations I'd jotted on 3x5 cards).
  • I attended a panel and took notes with a pen on paper.
  • I cut and pasted excerpts from a government website into a Word document that I sent to my Kindle and saved on my computer.
  • I signed onto Westlaw and LexisNexis to check some things or look for examples as I was writing.
  • I looked at U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S. in print to get publication dates for citing.
  • I typed a quotation directly from a book into a footnote in my draft, without any intermediate note-taking on it.
Is this the perfect way to manage documents, notes, and citations? No. Is it the way I'll do things in my next writing project? Maybe, maybe not.

The old technology of 3x5 cards actually still works pretty darn well for a lot of things -- for instance, quickly referring to a note or a citation and rearranging notes to figure out a good order. Having a bunch of documents together in a folder on my laptop is great too -- for long passages that I wouldn't want to have to copy onto an index card, for reading PDFs, for checking quotations. And being able to go online to search or retrieve is convenient too.

Other tools: tables in Word, spreadsheets, Microsoft OneNote (I haven't tried it, but one student told me she used it for everything).

What do you use? Click on Comment to share your thoughts and tips.


Mr. Gunn said...

Hi Mary! May I suggest Mendeley as another option for managing your notes and citations? You've used quite mix of methods for getting your materials together, and you're right that in many cases nothing beats a legal pad and 3x5 cards. However, Mendeley might reduce a little bit of the data friction you experience transferring data from one format to another. For example, you can point Mendeley at the folder in which you store all your PDFs and it'll index them all for you, allowing you to do a full-text search across all of them or search and sort by author, journal, date, etc. For your notes, you can annotate the PDFs directly in Mendeley as well as associate tags and notes with the citation. The whole lot then gets backed up on Mendeley Web so you can access it from another computer or other device. The reason this saves you time is that when you go to write, it plugs in with your word processor so you can just click to insert a citation and get your bibliography formatted as you write.

If you have any follow-up questions, please feel free to get in touch via the site or twitter @mrgunn.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I am a graduated law student.

I have been behind a good research note´s software for years. And I really think it doesn´t exists yet.

Due to this, I write all my notes in Word, over a personalized template (3x5 page). Then, I print to cards.

Each card have three fields only: an alfanumerical code, body note and biblio-reference (with its respective format "ready-to-paste"). Every Word document contains only 100cards (for easy managing)

When writing, I need to arrange my "physical" notes, then open their respective "card-docs", and go with the cut and paste when necessary.

However, this is tedious, since I already have nearly 2000notes and counting, and despite I consider my "physical catalogue" as "very good", I am aware it must be a better way to handle it.

Access to licensed software may be too difficult (Filemaker appears as good as expensive). I dont think sharing notes is always a good idea for a researcher, either to save them somewhere over the web. Despite it may be good for certain study groups, it is no good for everybody in every case.

On the other hand, I am afraid to say that by now any automatized share of research notes may lead to the same sort of well known problems with Wikipedia.

I would like a software allowing us to virtually organize cards in different manners, despite wherever they are located. The same be said for bibliography. ...The idea is to facilitate the planning of each work, allowing intuitive arrangements (and avoiding tedious windows´ "direct access")

For me, the idea is to have one single document with all the information necessary for different -sometimes parallel- projects. The same way we do with our cards, for example, to manage certain "chapter 3´s subject". ...An "aero" inspired card view (and edit) may be a nice plus.

Finally, an automatized invisible link between our document itself and its card-notes when cutting and pasting, or the possibility to manually insert it to every reference may be excellent for further revisions of our work.

I would like to share experiences and comments about these subjects.

Anonymous said...

Just to add that a free licensed multi-university project on this kind of software, would be extraordinary.