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How to make research writing easier! - The Open College of the Arts

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How to make research writing easier!

A Win-Win situation: citation software…

What would you say if you were offered less work, better-focused research, easier and quicker writing, better accuracy of citations and bibliography and everything as neatly organised as a series of music playlists? Okay, who wouldn’t say yes? However, this is a post about one of the most boring topics in education …but exploring it could do all of the above for you.

What is it?

On my last degree the nice people at the library (is it being surrounded by books, or book-lovers that makes them happy?) offered a short session on citation software. Hmmm …what is it? Do I need that? Will it cost anything? I’d done most of my previous research on paper, painstakingly adding citations, references and a bibliography: a process that felt as if it took longer than the actual writing.

That short course changed my research forever. So, yes, I did need it. No, it needn’t cost anything (a win/win already). It saved a lot of time and effort – time better spent on doing something more constructive. The third advantage was that I’d inadvertently found a way of reducing research and reading, by focusing what I did do so that it was better organised and more effective. I found research for bigger projects grew and grew as each idea took me in different directions. In fact, at times I’d felt as if I was drowning in a sea of paper and web pages. All this research was supposed to support and inspire me: to make things clearer and easier, not harder.

For most students – me included – writing up research is seen as a chore, often put off, although deadlines are getting closer by the day.¹ As a chore it isn’t given the care it might be, to properly document and save it. I’ve even found that I’ve quoted from a source only to discover I’ve no record of where it was found. Then I faced the prospect of finding the source again and its page number again, or leaving out the quote.

How does it work?

Citation software allows you to input basic information about the source into a template, where it automatically adapts it to the source type – newspaper, web page, book, song, poem etc. When you want to reference that source, it writes the citation in the correct format for that source type, and adds the source to the bibliography. All you have to do is to decide where you want a reference, then choose which one from your saved sources. 

So far so good: you only have to input the information once and it’s stored for as long as you need it. The other trick up its sleeve is that you can upload that information automatically (not type it in) by exporting it from a site such as a library’s website – that’s any library you can access online.² To recap, you search for what you want to quote, import to the software (usually just a couple of clicks) and then choose that entry from the software’s archive as many times as you like and it does the rest.


I was already hooked, but the biggest advantage came when it was suggested that I reduce the workload of my research: that I narrowed it down, focusing on what’s most important, as opposed to widening at every level. I decided to use the citation software’s function of collecting the references into groups; rather like songs, they can be categorised into several collections, appearing in multiple searches.³ What I also did was to prioritise everything according to 3 levels: the triage method. Essentially these groups are:

  1. Core issues that will shape what I want to say, how I’ll say it and influence its direction
  2. I will use this, but it’s more supporting evidence, not at the core of the text
  3. Interesting and relevant, probably not included in my text, but I’ll keep it just in case

Those three categories shape what is researched (or abandoned) and to what depth. 

At the stage of finding research decide – do I read this, skim over it or dismiss it? When reading or viewing, I ask myself ‘is this shaping what I want to say or to create’? When writing up, I already have the core research in one group, with the supporting evidence at hand in another if needed. I find I read and view a lot less material. With what I do choose to research in some depth, I can decide which parts are most relevant and need storing. All of this information is searchable, as are associated files. Therefore, you can transcribe quotes onto the entry, assign keywords, link a PDF of an article to its reference, or link a YouTube URL to a film’s reference etc., so nothing is lost.

UCA/OCA have their own ‘style’ of referencing, the UCA Harvard Referencing style. This is available via two providers: Zotero and Paperpile. These are the ones recommended by UCA’s library as others would need some amendments to citations if they’re generated from other software (e.g. Mendeley or Endnote). I’ve used Endnote for many years now (the web-based version is free). To compare different software packages, see the Wiki guide, then try a trial version or two:


UCA’s library has some excellent advice and help, to get you started: see

¹Not that some putting off, or ‘thoughtful contemplation’, is not necessarily bad, but there has to be a point at which you actually start the useful part! I love poet David Whyte’s short piece on procrastination and Vicky McKenzie’s blog post https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/creative-writing/procrastinating-or-wool-gathering/

²It’s a good idea to read through what it uploads to check the information, but they’re usually correct.

³For example, one track could simultaneously be in overlapping groups: ‘90s, indy, female artist etc.

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Posted by author: Derek Trillo

10 thoughts on “How to make research writing easier!

    • You’re welcome Catherine. It’s not the most exciting topic, but it can be really useful to save time and get organised 🙂

  • OMG how I empathise with this:

    ‘ I’ve even found that I’ve quoted from a source only to discover I’ve no record of where it was found. Then I faced the prospect of finding the source again and its page number again, or leaving out the quote.’

    Then I discover that the PdF I have downloaded does not support the ‘Find’ option when I try to find the most unusual word in the quote!!!

    Article made me smile – thanks

    • PDFs may or may not have an invisible searchable text overlay. If they have, you can “Find” stuff. If not, you can’t. The good news is that if you have a PDF that you can’t search, you can add the invisible searchable text yourself. Several good, free, PDF readers can do this. (I don’t use Adobe Reader, so don’t know if that will do it.) I use PDF-XChange Editor from Tracker Software. The free version does everything I need.

  • I found that using paper pole when researching on Groves music online(Oxford music online) the citation does is not created correctly so I have to manually create the citation.. Good practise anyway lol

  • I think I did mention about checking the info carried across. One record I downloaded had the author and publisher swapped by the library! generally they’re ok though. You can of course add your own notes in the software, as well as adding tags to the actual files (e.g. to the PDF). Grouping the references also helps to find what you want as you’re not searching your whole library of references.

  • Excellent advice. I have been using Zotero since starting L3. The great thing is I can have a general database of research then categorise and develop other focussed folders withing the system. I have also integrated Zotero into MS Word, which makes creating a bibliography so much easier. Just wish I had started using this at the beginning of the degree!

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