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I am often in charge of researching new sub-topics in my discipline for short papers. I find my default technique is:

  1. Search Google Scholar for best-guess keywords
  2. Open relevant-looking resulting paper, skim
  3. Find new references in that paper, open new tabs for those papers while reading first paper
  4. Look at new papers, find new references and key words. Open new tab for new Scholar searches
  5. Decide those key words aren't useful after all
  6. Make valiant attempt to figure out which of the 20 open tabs are still worth keeping open, which papers are worth adding to Zotero, which papers are worth downloading.

Clearly, I am not of a methodical mindset. I'm beginning to wonder if I took 5 sec to add each paper author-year-keyword to a small notepad app on the side of the screen before I opened the article, that might help me keep track of the mess. Or something. Does anyone have a simple workflow for this "brainstorming" phase that would work well for the non-methodically minded? I'm a Chrome/Google type rather than an Apple type, if that matters.

  • You could try making a mindmap. There are some software tools for that which are fairly easy to use. – Marc Claesen May 9 '14 at 21:30
  • If the idea is just to impinge on your consciousness ideas from a not-quite-random selection of papers, I can't imagine a quicker way to find such a selection. If you have a different goal of categorizing, you might instead look at the dictionary of keyword lists that sometimes accompany papers. I might come up with an actual answer if I knew more about your goals motivating this endavour. – Not Quite An Outsider May 9 '14 at 22:04
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    The biggest problem is by the time I get back to an early paper, I can't remember what I hoped to learn from it. I am wishing for some sort of breadcrumb trail, or automatic "history" of what I've visited that I can make quick notes on. But more ephemeral than Zotero, because I will likely only keep 10-20% of what I find. – Adrienne May 10 '14 at 2:52
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My workflow/suggestion would be to keep this all in Zotero. I'm a big believer in keeping the number of tools one uses relatively small and becoming very proficient at using ones favorite tools. I use a collection ("Inbox") dedicated to items I may or may not keep and don't have time to read right away. I will then go through those items periodically and either throw them out (remember you need to "Move to trash" or shift+delete - just pressing delete will just delete them from the collection.) or file them in the right collection and delete them from "Inbox". To quickly remind you of why you saved the items, you could either attach Zotero notes or you could use tags, including colored tags if you can make do with only a couple of short keywords. Finally, since you will always save items into Zotero right away, you can sort the collection by "date added," which should give you a good idea of the context in which you saved an item. Since you're using Zotero Standalone, you'll want to use alt+tab to quickly move back and forth between Zotero and your browser.

  • I am a fan of Zotero but I lose the track of my research when I am having huge number of references. – Enthusiastic Engineer Feb 2 '15 at 9:41
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I use Papers for this, because not only does it let you organize your citations, but it lets you search and import documents directly from the program, rather than having to bring them into a manager.

Basically, I create a new folder for this particular brainstorming session, everything I find that's worth skimming gets imported, and then the ones that don't pan out get deleted.

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