Research Tips: How I Build a Personal Research Database

Ed note: We know November means that we’re approaching the end of the semester and many of you will be working on research projects. In light of this time of the semester, and that November has become known as both National Novel Writing Month and Academic Writing Month, we’re bringing you a couple of posts this month with our favorite research tips to help you get to writing that research paper faster. We’d love to hear your favorite research and writing tips. Please share them with us on Twitter (@AldenLibrary) or Facebook. Be sure to also check out our Writing Tips Pinboard.



If you’re going to be conducting research, you’ll often need to find previous literature on your topic. You will often look to library databases to do this, but once you end up with more than a few articles, keeping track of all of that information can get messy quickly. And it can be easy to lose it from the assignment or class to the next. Luckily there are tools called citation managers to help you keep track of all of it and build a personal research database. I do this with Zotero.

Screenshot of Zotero database.
A screenshot of my Zotero database showing how I’ve organized my information into folders.

Zotero works with your browser to identify web pages that have this sort of information – known
as metadata – and sends the information to your personal Zotero account. You can access this data via a Firefox browser add-on, through a program you download to your computer or on the Zotero website. All of these tools are available on the Zotero website. This will work in most of our library databases, in the ALICE catalog and on many other websites that have this metadata. 

Once you have article information in Zotero, you can attach files for each piece of information, including notes documents or the full text of the article for you to read later. You can organize your article information into folders, link related articles together or tag articles on a particular topic so you can find them later. Once you’ve got your personal database collected, you can go return here to search for that article you remember reading rather than searching through the thousands of articles in library databases. Plus, Zotero can help you write in-text citations and bibliographies in a wide-variety of formats.

There are many tools available to track citations and manage your research, but Zotero works well for me. There are many more features of Zotero, but here are my top three tips and tricks for using it more efficiently:

  1. Use the transform text tool to change articles titles to change articles titles from title case (most words in caps) to sentence case (just the first word in caps). This is very handy if you’re using APA and only need your first word, first word of a sub-title and proper nouns in caps.

  2. Use shortcuts: in the preferences pane, you should be able to find (or set) shortcuts. Then when you are looking at an article you can just press Control + Shift + A to copy an in-text citation for the article or Control + Shift + C to copy a full citation.

  3. Use the magic wand tool to add an article by DOI number or book by ISBN number: this is great if you have citations already printed on a syllabus or in an article you’re reading.


The video below by Kyle Denliner, eLearning Librarian at Wake Forest gives you a good overview of the Zotero and how it can help with your research.

Do you use Zotero? Or another citation management tool that works better for you? Let us know in the comments or via Twitter or Facebook.