On the shoulders of giants

This is a reasonably quick tutorial on a new workflow that I have been wanting to perfect. The aims of my workflow are as follows:

  1. To be able to future-proof my writing.
  2. To be able to easily access all the things that I know other people know about stuff.
  3. To be able to easily reference the things I need.
  4. To be able to access all this information from anywhere on any platform.
  5. To be able to export my data in case Something Happens.
  6. To be able to do it all preferably for free.

The motivation from this came from observing my head of department and how he works. 20-something years ago he wrote himself a database front end into which he painstakingly copied and pasted quotes and categorised them. He is becoming increasingly frustrated by the program because it’s stuck in the 90s but he can’t escape it now because it’s so useful. I wanted to be able to recreate it with all the amazing tools that academics use these days but nothing quite seemed to be able to do it all at once. My mistake was that I wanted a feature of Qiqqa (which is free but Windows-only) whereby you could tag quotes within PDFs. The mistake was that I tried so hard for so long to look for PDF-annotation tools that fit in with reference managers… I didn’t want to have to import PDFs twice. Nothing (other than Qiqqa) really managed it. And Qiqqa’s tablet support is apparently a bit rubbish.

So one day I had an epiphany. And this is the result of it.

Tools you need

  1. Zotero, Mendeley, or another reference manager. The main features you want from this is to be able to do inline citation in Word, and to be able to export a single reference as some sort of unique identifier so you can find it again easily (I use a full citation in Harvard style).
  2. Evernote
  3. A multiple clipboard buffer app. I use Flycut on Mac OS X. You can find it in the app store. There are lots there for Windows but I haven’t quite found the best one yet. Will update when I do.
  4. Microsoft Word (this is the one exception to my “free” thing, as I have it already and you probably do too if you’re an academic).


  1. I make a notebook in Evernote for a particular area that I research. The one I’ll be using here is called “Video Games”.
  2. I find some journal papers or books or whatever I want to read for my research.
  3. I import them into Zotero in the usual way (I’m not going to give a tutorial on Zotero — there are plenty out there).
  4. Now I’m going to read them. As I read, I copy into my multiple buffers (using cmd/ctrl-C) the quotes I’m interested in.
  5. Once I’m done reading/copying, I go to Zotero and export as bibliography entry the paper I’ve just read. To do this you right click the paper from the main pane in Zotero, and “Create Bibliography from Item…” I choose Output Mode to be Bibliography and Output Method to be Copy to Clipboard. This basically puts the citation in my clipboard buffer.
  6. I open the notebook I created in Evernote and open a new note. I paste in the citation as the title, and then one of the quotes from my buffer.
  7. I tag the quote with whatever tags I feel appropriate. For example, I’ve been writing about “male gaze” today. Here is a quote:
Become the male hero. Help the female hero. That’s what the male gaze does to videogames.

This quote has the tags: male gaze, sexism, story development

8. Continue on with the rest of the quotes as with steps 6 & 7.

9. When I come to write the paper, I can now search for tags that include whatever I am writing about, e.g. “male gaze”. Voila! A whole load of quotes that I can then easily write about, copy & paste, etc. into Word and easily cite using my reference manager.

The best bit is that it stops me doing what I have done in the past — i.e. read old papers and just rewrite the bits for background where I’ve written about it before. It saves me printing out reams of paper only for the paper to be read once and forgotten about. It also allows me to keep up to date in the subject area because I’m constantly adding new papers with new tags. I’m hoping it’ll allow me to build up a corpus of knowledge about my field, so that when someone says “hey Catherine, tell me all about the male gaze in video games” I’ll have a boatload of stuff ready to show them. ☺

Hope that helps. Any questions or suggestions, hit me up!