After a break for the holidays and the beginning of the year activities I need to get working on my dissertation again. I want to have a good method for taking notes so that they are easy to reference while I am writing. But I have been frustrated by the lack of good software for academic writing.

Maybe the problem is that not many academic types are geeks, but it shouldn’t be this difficult. With my background in computer programming I can envision the ideal software for dissertation writing because I know what is possible. It would have the following characteristics:

Source management features:

  • a bibliographic database for sources, complete with keywords and the ability to search
  • ability remotely log into library catalogers and import bibliographic data directly into the database
  • automatic formatting of footnotes according to a wide variety of style requirements
  • ability to create new citation styles if necessary
  • automatic creation and updating of first reference and subsequent reference footnotes
  • automatic creation of a bibliography of works cited

Quotation management features:

  • a note card feature for recording research notes and quotations
  • link between note cards and bibliographic database so that when the note is pasted into the document the footnote is automatically generated
  • searchable keyword categories for the notes
  • an outline manager to organize the notes according to the outline for the paper
  • a way to track which quotes have been used, and if necessary to locate them in the paper

It may sound like a lot, but this is all very doable. Actually, I have settled on Endnote for my bibliographic software, and it will handle every thing in the first category. But I have not been able to find a satisfactory program for the quotation management, and certainly nothing that integrates the two.

I was tempted to start a programming project and work on the software myself, but I don’t think that I can afford to use my dissertation study time for the next 6 months to develop software. Instead I think I will try out setting up a very simple note card database in Microsoft Access. It won’t be linked to Endnote, but at least I can manage my quotes and set up keywords. I will enter abbreviated reference information on the “card,” and then use Endnote to generate the footnote when I paste the quotation into my document. Hopefully this will be a reasonable work around. I will let you know!

Update: I found out a way to enter Rich Text (i.e. font and formatting) in an Access field.  So now I can correctly enter any bold or italic fonts in my quotations.  My Access application is growing a little bit at a time as I get around to tweaking it.  (3-23-06) 

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  1. PK, I think it’s time someone developed your dream software! I’ve been using Endnote too, but have been limited by lack of “quotation management.” I have just been naming all the source article pdfs with long descriptive filenames, and keeping track of notes in a large word document. It’s okay for now, but it gets hard to search. If I do a real thesis, under my current system, I can see how things might spiral out of control. Good luck on setting up the Access database!

  2. I have just spent a week of my research time to try to find a solution for a similar problem. Very frustrating! I would like to have an database for my own research notes, ideas and texts, link them to bibliographic entries and assign keywords to them. I’m dreaming about having a delicios style cloud of keywords, click on one of them and get a list (e.g. in rtf) of all the research notes related to this keyword plus the references I linked. Would also be great if you could drag and drop each of the index card style entries into different structures, orders and outlines. It’s not that complicated, but apparently does not exist. Or maybe just not for Mac? Any ideas anyone?

  3. What you want is MS Office Vista, though with its announced released date in early 2007 and its likely release date somewhere in 2011, you’ll probably be done before it gets out. But what I’ve seen of some of the features includes some pretty cool new abilities to handle citations. These extra tools we use to help write papers may no longer be necessary.

  4. Are you willing to share that Access db? I’m having the same difficulty finding something portable (fits on a USB) and can handle citations / notes as I’d like (formatted text plus attachments). I’ve tried OneNote, EverNote, ndxCards, AZZCardFile, Wordperfect Lightening, and just haven’t found something quite right.

  5. You can try it out if you want. I use it with Access 97, because that is the version that I have (it might work on a newer version). So you will need your own copy of Access. But you need to install a plugin that allows Access to handle formatted text. I can tell you how to do that.

    You should consider this experimental software that I threw together to meet my own needs. I cannot really provide any support. If you are comfortable working with Access, you are welcome to give it a try. If you are interested, I can send you details by email.

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