5 keys to building a kickass research knowledgebase

Three research leaders and Mendeley power users share tips for organizing your research information using freely available tools and library databases

By Jonathan Davis - March 10, 2020  6 mins
Lucasz Lara Virginia
Dr. Lukasz Porwol, Dr. Lara Dick and Virginia Ballance are Mendeley Advisors.

For researchers across the world, collecting, organizing, reviewing and retaining knowledge can be a time-consuming and complex task. Whether you’re doing a literature review, preparing for a new research project or getting up to speed on a new topic, you likely have multiple sources to draw from with thousands of articles on related topics. How can you synthesize such a vast array of information easily?

We asked a research librarian and two researchers for their tips and best practices below.

All three are Mendeley Advisors.


Watch now: Our 3 experts share their tips in this free webinar.


1. First things first: get to your library.

Get to know the library and the librarians. Find out which librarian is the subject specialist, or the liaison librarian for your department because they can help you immensely.

Virginia BallanceVirginia’s first piece of advice applies whether you are an early-career researcher or a seasoned lecturer – whether you’re at a new institution or on familiar turf. It’s not what you know that counts, it’s who you know – and the person you need to know is your librarian. By finding out what resources and services are available at your library, you will find the content you’re looking for even faster.

Key advice from Virginia: Database access can vary, and oftentimes, the same content is often available through different vendors. So take the time to learn how to use and search databases effectively and efficiently. “It can save you a lot of time and hours of frustration,” Virginia added.

2. Harness the “magic” of reference managers (in the cloud and on your desktop).

It's hard to imagine these days not using one of these tools because they make it so simple to keep track of all kinds of research material.

Learning how to use a reference manager is one of the top tips Virginia shares with students at the University of the Bahamas. For all the book chapters, scientific papers and other reference materials students will inevitably end up saving as PDFs on their computer, reference managers can help organize, retrieve and take some of the stress out of preparing that upcoming paper.

By extracting the metadata for each article being cited, a reference manager, like Elsevier’s Mendeley, will create an entry in your document library with that must-have information and can export into the most commonly used reference styles in use today (including APA, Chicago and MLA).

That amounts to a lot of time saved when you submit that next journal article.

Key advice from Virginia – Because Mendeley has both a desktop and cloud-based version, once you have created your account and populated your library, your PDFs can travel with you no matter where you log in. “That’s truly magic,” Virginia said.

3. Find an organization system that works for you.

Lara Dick, PhDHow you keep yourself organized is very much a personal decision, whether you choose to heavily employ a highlighter, scribble in the margins or use Post-it notes.  For Dr. Lara Dick, when she became a full-time researcher and faculty member at Bucknell University, transitioning from printing papers out to storing them in the cloud was not easy: “I came kicking and screaming,” Lara confessed:

I just didn't know what I thought about reading on a screen … but realized what an amazing resource Mendeley was. … I now have 716 documents in my library, 22 folders, and they all have sub folders. …. I can’t imagine what research would be like if I didn’t have it.

Key advice from Lara: Be sure to sync your work between the desktop and the cloud regularly.

Lara also noted that working in groups requires a lot of back-and-forth communication, whether it’s with other researchers in remote locations, fellow students, or nearby faculty members. Lara emphasizes that no matter how you like to organize, the connections she’s created through Mendeley have greatly expanded her research network.

“I feel like I am connected to my colleagues, and I'm able to easily do research with them,” she said, “and a huge part of that is because of the features on Mendeley.”

4.  Build your own community.

As a Mendeley Advisor, Dr. Lukasz Porwol presents at Elsevier’s Mendeley office in London’s Alphabeta building.

Dr. Lukasz’s roles including coordinating large projects funded by the European Commission. For this reason, his day-to-day research activities extend across national boundaries as well as locally with the students he supervises at NUI’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

While his interactions with students and fellow researchers vary (and require a different set of skills, comprehension and knowledgebases), eventually, both groups will hit a point of information overload. Lukasz highlights how a tool like Mendeley helps in each of those roles:

Sooner or later, you need to use a reference management system. … The advantage of Mendeley is the strong community (of researchers and developers) who are working on the solution, and how they come together.

Key advice from Lukasz: Don’t be afraid to suggest new ideas, both within your research group and to the Mendeley team. “If there are any issues, or you have some suggestions for new features, (Mendeley colleagues) are very, very responsive.” With Mendeley it’s very easy to contextualize your conversations, keeping track of specific collaborations and independent projects, he added.

5.  Choose a reference manager.

The fifth and final tip focuses exclusively on Mendeley’s indexing capabilities. Without going too far into the technical details, you must first make a choice on which reference manager to use (and hopefully that’s an easy decision to make, in consideration of the first four tips). Even though Mendeley may not be able to write that next research article for you, it can help redirect the initial pressures of pulling together all the relevant information that has been gathered before you start writing.

Each of our three Mendeley power users praise the indexing that the tool provides and encourage everyone to spend time organizing information manually in Mendeley, as reinforced by Lukas’ advice to “set up your account, create your own groups, your collaboration groups and with your supervisor decide on a folder structure … Make sure you go through your documents, make sure that you put everything in the right place, and that will spare you a lot of time and frustration in the future.”

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Written by

Jonathan Davis

Written by

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan Davis is the Communications Officer for Elsevier. Based in Amsterdam he manages the Newsroom's services, working together with university press offices and journalists around the world to highlight the latest research published in over 2,500 journals. He is no stranger to the world of publishing, holding a degree in Publishing from Oxford Brookes University; one of his first roles was as Commissioning Editor for a small academic publishing house in the UK, before joining Elsevier in 2013.

A proud Canadian, he has now planted his roots in the Netherlands. As a recovering news and radio reporter, he can be found finding a balance between his various interests, including cycling, DJing and being a new Dad.

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