I would like to adapt a post I put up back in August 2020 on teaching citation tables to undergraduate researchers. This adaptation will focus on how to use citation tables as a graduate student. A citation table is like an annotated bibliography, and there are some good examples of them in the literature: Wong and Breecker, 2015; Wong et al., 2015.
A good citation table will have space for identifiers, places for you to write down some key analyses or information from the text, and an answer to a question you have that has led you back to the literature in the first place. Here is an example of one that I made for a grant. The goal of this table was to summarize the global advancement on the subject of cave monitoring. I had a few questions in mind, such as: 1. What equipment are researchers using now? and, 2. What physical or chemical changes are researchers interested in monitoring in caves?
When I was first starting as a graduate student, citation tables were key way for me to organize information on the papers I was reading. I am a question motivated person, I have a hard time reading a lot of papers at random and organizing them into a relevant structure. Instead, I focus on a question I have, and go looking for papers that will help me answer it. This is how I write sections of papers and how I write grants, so it makes sense for me to organize the papers this way. If you also think of yourself as a question motivated or subject motivated person, I encourage you to try it.
Step 1. Develop questions! This may be related to a method or how folks deal with the type of data you now have in your hands. It may be broad, like: what does the current community care about in relation to X subfield? It could also be related to something else you have read, "Author et al. (2021) stated that Y is related to Z with citations, I would like to recreate that relationship through digging into the citations and seeing how that was developed." All of these ways of thinking lend themselves to a citation table as an organizational tool. Once you have a few questions for the literature, it's time to start a table.
Step 2. Start a table! The table should have a column for the paper identification. After this, it's up to your field. As a geologist, I also tend to have a column that includes where in the world the paper is focusing on (geographic location). The last 1-2 columns are the questions I have.
Step 3: Go to the literature! At this point, you should use your questions to help you begin a literature search. You can use keywords from your questions to help you start. I personally prefer google scholar or web of science. You can also use the options on google scholar to limit the years in which an article may be published. This may be useful specifically for grant writing or if your question is related to what the subfield cares about right now. Under each individual google scholar result will be a "cited by" button and you can use these buttons to trace subject backwards and forward through time.
Step 4: Fill out the table! This may be an obvious one, but I want to emphasize is that this is a paper organizing tool. This is not a place to dump all of your notes on the paper in this tiny table. You are looking for only the most relevant information to fill out the table to sort the paper and the information. This is designed to make sure that you can go through many papers quickly and effectively.
Final thoughts: You can share these tables with your advisors or peers to help you communicate a thought you've had. I have used these to 'prove' to my advisor that I'm not crazy in relation to an idea I've had. And, I've used these to communicate to a peer about the papers I am reading on a subject.
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I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.