Tools and Apps for Organizing Research Materials

by | Oct 25, 2016

Popular culture often represents the stereotype of messy professor offices with giant piles of papers and books about to fall over, with the professors themselves struggling to find that one journal article or grade book they know must be in there somewhere.

Yet as Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite point out in their book Being a Scholar in the Digital Era, most of the research materials and other stuff we accumulate these days is digital. Depending on our fields, that might mean any combination of articles, books, pdfs, videos, websites, images, audio files, emails, and documents.

Here are some key apps and tools for organizing research materials, teaching items, and all the other digital stuff we accumulate as scholars.

The art of organizing research materials

Digital resource management tools are your friend. A good digital resource management tool does a few things:

  • Captures resources as you come across them in your daily life
  • Organizes those resources into some semblance of order
  • Keeps resources from getting lost
  • And most importantly: Lets you find an object whenever and wherever you want it

To start setting up your digital resource management system, take a look at some tools that can help you start to organize all that digital stuff.

Browser bookmarks

You might already use these to bookmark websites you want to come back to later. In your web browser’s bookmarks settings, you can organize your bookmarks into nested folders and add tags for easy searching. This is a great way to group together websites for different projects, and search them later.

If you use bookmarks, make sure to back them up regularly when you back up your computer (if you don’t regularly back up your computer, this is a great time to start).


Evernote is awesome. It’s available for all your devices, and lets you capture, organize, and use all your research materials, as well as take notes on everything.

Evernote is a great way to keep track of your different projects. You can also use it to annotate pdfs, draft manuscripts, rearrange pieces of your writing, or make to-do lists.

Evernote is free.


DevonThink is a more robust version of Evernote, which can organize more file formats (video, audio, images, pdfs, documents, websites).

It also has a very cool artificial intelligence feature that can find conceptual connections between your research materials that you might not have noticed before.

DevonThink is not free, but it does have a free trial and educational discount.


Zotero is reference management software that lets you keep track of your academic sources (books, articles, websites, etc.).

Zotero also formats your references in the citation format of your choosing and can produce bibliographies for your scholarly projects. It integrates with Word and OpenOffice, allowing you to create citations as you write.

You can take notes on pdfs and sync across your devices. If you’re always thinking “I swear I have a pdf article about that somewhere…” or “What is the difference between APA and Chicago style again?”, Zotero can be a great solution.

Zotero is free.

Find what works for you

Here is a worksheet that helps you find the digital resource management tools that work for you.

You can use the worksheet to identify 3 resource management apps that you are curious about (there is a list of options in the activity worksheet, or you can find your own). You should play around with each one—read each app’s website, see what features and design it has, and maybe read a review or two.

Then you can use the worksheet table to evaluate each app, considering 4 main things:


What can it do? What can it not do? Are there any missing features that you could supplement with another tool?


What is the price? Does the price fit with your budget and needs? Is the price worth it for the value it delivers? Think about this realistically for your own life. Oftentimes a free app is the best option, but sometimes a paid app that frees up more of your time and energy than the free version can be worth it.


Do you like the app’s visual design? Would you want to look at it every day? This isn’t frivolous—if the design is going to bug you, you won’t use it. And the best project management tool in the world can’t help if you don’t use it.


How does it fit into your existing routines? Is it available for your devices and the way you want to engage with your projects? If you prefer to run everything on your phone, and an app only comes in a desktop or web version, maybe that’s not the best app for you. Or if you only intermittently have wi-fi access, maybe an app that only works with Internet access isn’t the best fit. Or if you hate bouncing between a ton of different apps, maybe the best app for you would be one that combines multiple functions (calendar, email, to-do lists, contacts, notes, etc.).

From these three, pick one to test out for the next 2–3 weeks. Sign up for an account (or if it is a paid app, try a free trial first), download the app, and add a few projects and tasks in there. I recommend choosing 2–3 projects to test out your app with, unless you absolutely know you want to stick with the app you chose. Try out the different features, see how the project management system fits into your daily routine, and evaluate how or if it helps you make progress toward your goals.

After 2 or 3 weeks, evaluate how the app has been working for you. If you discover that the app you chose isn’t working for you, swap out another one. Or maybe add an analog (physical, non-digital) one. The point is to try out digital resource management tools in your real life to see what works and what doesn’t.

Once you find the tools that work for you, you can start organizing all of your research materials, finding materials when you need them, and using all those materials to write your kick-ass interdisciplinary scholarship.

Share this:

Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

You might also like

Pin It on Pinterest