7 elements to building an effective knowledgebase

Here are some key steps to collecting and organizing research so you can find it when you need it

Knowledgebase quote card

As a researcher, your work relies on a solid foundation of knowledge built up over time: every search you conduct, paper you read, talk you attend, and dataset you download contributes to that knowledgebase. Finding and evaluating the relevance of that information is just the first step. That content needs to be collated, organized, annotated and, crucially, easily retrievable – and that process needs to be simple and efficient.

Here, we’re going to walk you through the steps of building a knowledgebase and suggest some tools you can use.

  1. Efficiency in reading research
  2. Evaluating the research
  3. Annotation made simple
  4. Time to get organized
  5. The “D word” and how to work with it
  6. Skilling up and getting started
  7. Tools you can use

1. Efficiency in reading research

Knowledge base picto 1Research conducted by Elsevier shows that after spending four hours a week searching for articles, researchers then spend on average of five hours a week reading just over five papers in-depth. Reading is an active process involving multitasking, several dozen open browser tabs and a cluttered desktop. Of the researchers we surveyed, 59 percent click on a reference at the end of the article, 55 percent look up other articles by the same author and 46 percent take notes, generating new content.

What’s more, scientific articles today contain interactive supplementary data, multimedia elements and a range of plug-ins to communicate the results. Researchers need to compare results and images while reading different parts of the article (as well as other articles), explore the supplementary data, and understand all the specific terms and concepts mentioned, which may involve looking up definitions or explanations, especially when working on an interdisciplinary project.

While you might prefer to read and store the PDF version of an article, as most of the researchers we surveyed do, the more interactive version online will give you a different perspective. For every group we surveyed, the computer screen was the best place to read an article.

Both Mendeley and ScienceDirect can make this process easier. Key elements that allow for efficient reading consumption of knowledge are:

  • High quality PDFs with annotation and highlighting features
  • High resolution images
  • Clear and easy-to-read tables and figure

ScienceDirect’s clear tables, figures and images and high-quality PDFs can make viewing articles and absorbing information easier. Also, the Mendeley web importer lets you save articles from ScienceDirect into your Mendeley library. Once articles are in your Mendeley library, they are easy to annotate and highlight.

Watch Elsevier’s free Build my Knowledge webinar

2. Evaluating research

Knowledge base picto 2Through reading, you’re starting the process of building your knowledge, and evaluation is a key part of this. How do you know if the papers you’ve identified are reliable, robust and useful? Evaluation requires several approaches: by reading the abstract and article, you’ll get an idea of the relevance and quality of the research, and you may decide to compare results or figures with your own work. By clicking on author names to find out who they are and looking at the journal and citation metrics, you can understand the authority of the research.

In evaluating research, key data points to assess are:

  • Citation information
  • Author credibility
  • Clarity of abstract

One of the leading and most comprehensive tools in the market for assessing article quality is Scopus. It clearly shows the number of citations an article has received, and by proxy, the importance the research community in that area of research place on that article. Scopus also allows researchers to view authors’ profiles with a single click, providing an additional layer of quality assessment. What else have they published and how were those articles cited? What is their h-index?

Linking directly to the published article from Scopus is easy, and for Elsevier published articles, you’ll land on the article page. An easily readable, clear abstract will quickly help you understand if an article’s scope will be relevant to your work. ScienceDirect ensures that abstracts area clearly visible to view, in full, by anyone visiting the platform.

3. Annotation made simple

Knowledge base picto 3Having decided a paper is useful, you’ll probably want to annotate the article beyond scribbles in the margins: 30 percent of the researchers who responded to our survey annotated the PDF articles they were reading. Good annotation is a skill you can learn, and it can be vital if you’re collaborating with others and need your notes to be shareable, understandable, and modifiable.

A clean user interface and high-quality PDFs are essential for making this part of the knowledge-building process as efficient as possible, and although there is still some way to go, journal platforms are working towards creating enhanced readers that will allow evaluation and knowledge consumption to become even more efficient.

4. Time to get organized

Knowledge base picto 4Organizing your knowledgebase well is arguably the one thing that will save you the most time later. Remember that sea of PDFs on your messy desktop?

Without a good storage solution, the retrieval and sharing process can’t happen in a simple, systematic manner. This is where reference managers come in.

As well as recording and utilizing bibliographic citations, most well-established reference management platforms provide a personal online library in which to store downloaded articles and have web and PDF annotation options. This means your notes can be stored in your library – searchable, understandable, shareable and retrievable.

Evaluation toolsRead toolsCitation managers
1. Scopus 1. Read plug-ins 1. Mendeley
2. PDF 2. PDF 2. Endnote ($)
3. iAnnotate 3. Mendeley 3. CiteULike
4. PDF 4. HTML 4. Zotero
5. HTML 5. iAnnotate 5. RefWorks ($)

$ = paid for products

Almost half of researchers download articles directly from the publishers’ website, and almost half from institutional repositories. Either way, a smooth web importer process to save articles to your reference manager library is essential, as that affects how you store and subsequently read the content. According to our survey, most researchers prefer PDFs to webpages when it comes to building a knowledgebase.

Whichever format you prefer, you want the platform you use to let you save content in a way that makes it easy to read, evaluate and retrieve. Tagging is additional useful functionality that some reference management platforms use to aid retrieval – a helpful extension of search and retrieve functionality that allows you to personalize how you store articles.

Knowledge base picto 5With the average number of co-authors per paper continuing to increase, sharing and collaboration features are important, too. Researchers often collaborate to make the most of a pooled skillset, to benefit from diverse knowledge and experience, and for networking and exposure.

Nearly all researchers share articles with colleagues: researchers tell us they share two articles a week on average, and a third of people say they share more now than a couple of years ago. Alongside sharing articles, researchers also find it useful to share annotations, links and other notes along with the article. Thankfully, as technology develops, more and more reference managers allow you to do that.

Mendeley quote bubbleMendeley’s web importer allows you to save documents directly to your Mendeley library without needing to navigate between multiple tabs or browsers. And with its new automatic sync between the desktop and web versions, you’ll be able to access the latest version of your library from anywhere.

Wracking your brains trying to find that article you forgot to save? ScienceDirect’s Reading History keeps track of all articles you’ve visited, so finding it just got a lot simpler.

Tagging is a key feature of tools here: by allowing you to tag and annotate data, Mendeley can help add value to the data for your work, as it gives you the option of capturing and organizing data file types and formats so they can be found and used by you and your collaborators.

Mendeley also makes sharing and collaboration more efficient through allowing you to share articles in your library and your Mendeley Notebook, including all highlights and annotations. Collaborators can comment back and share further, making collaboration with colleagues and co-authors simpler than ever.

And finally, adding references has become so easy that you’ll never think “I’ll do that later” again. Citing as you write with the Mendeley MS Word add-in is a simple drag and drop process.  Your bibliography formats automatically and reformats if you decide to include additional citations.

5. The “D word” and how to work with it

Knowledge base picto 6Increasingly, today’s researchers need to work with non-traditional article formats. Historically research data and research methods were found within the main article of the research that that data supports. However, funding mandates and other requirements mean that often they are now published as their own article. Not only does this lead to a proliferation of articles, it also means article types such as datasets, methods, and software become more prevalent, allowing researchers to go directly to the information they need rather than having to wade through the full article.

Whether you find what you need in a data article, in an article’s supplementary data, or published in a data repository, you still need to capture the data comprehensively and in the right format – you don’t want to be wasting time filling in gaps or reformatting.

When it’s comes to collecting your own data, you need to ensure it’s compatible with your data library and available to your colleagues. Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) can help you collect research data in consistent a format, and you might have access to an institutional repository where you can store your data and other literature.

6. Skilling up and getting started – help is at hand

Knowledge base picto 7Given how rapidly the tools and platforms that support knowledgebase building are developing, you’re likely to find yourself in a position where you’ll need to learn some new skills. The good news is that traditional publishers as well as newer technology start-ups are investing heavily in workflow solutions that are simple and intuitive to use. User guides and online webinars are freely available and help you learn reference and data management skills suitable to today’s research world.

One of Elsevier’s key missions is to support researchers through each stage of the research journey, providing tools and solutions that allow researchers to focus on the work they enjoy – doing research. Building a knowledgebase is an essential task, and although not easy, it can be simplified.

Help us build an even better future for researchers

Although there is still no one tool that addresses all your problems, progress has been made in integrating the different platforms that make up the knowledge building workflow:

  • From assessing the quality of research and authors in Scopus, researchers can link directly to the published article on ScienceDirect.
  • Having read and decided an article is useful, it is then possible to save the PDF directly to your Mendeley library using the Mendeley Web Importer.
  • And from your Mendeley library, annotations, highlights, notebooks and more can be shared with your collaborators.

It sounds simple but the technology required to make this happen in a simple, intuitive interface is complex.

The next step is to integrate platforms seamlessly, negating the need for web imports and plug-ins, and ultimately bringing together multiple tools and platforms into one complete solution. This will make the process of building your knowledgebase simpler and more efficient, leaving you to focus on breaking boundaries and making breakthroughs.

That’s the future, and it’s something we want to create in partnership with the researcher community.



Written by

James Picken

Written by

James Picken

James Picken has held various positions across Elsevier, most recently as Head of Content Strategy and Development for the Research Marketing team. In previous roles, he launched ResearcherAcademy.com, managed Elsevier’s Asia Pacific-published journals portfolio, and served as Strategic Marketing Manager for The Lancet journals.

Written by

Louise Springthorpe

Written by

Louise Springthorpe

Louise Springthorpe worked as Marketing Manager at Woodhead Publishing before joining Elsevier in 2013 as a Portfolio Marketing Manager in S&T Books. She is currently working in the content team for the researcher audience in Research Marketing.


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