Using Excel 2007 to Organize Research References

After two years of work toward my Ph.D. in organizational science, I’ve conducted numerous literature searches and downloaded quite a few full-text PDFs of research articles—1,374 of them, to be precise. So it’s fortunate that very early in my graduate school experience, I figured out a way to organize all of those files in a manner that I can easily (a) locate, (b) search, (c) sort, and (d) modify. In this short article, I explain what I did and how it helps me stay organized. Then, I provide a downloadable Excel 2007 workbook that you can use in the same manner. To be fair, a number of software programs designed to catalog and store research references and citations exist. I tried to familiarize myself with EndNote, which seems to be a good program for this purpose. My problem with EndNote, however, is that I needed more flexibility in how I kept track of all my references. I also wanted to use a program that is portable; that is, I wanted to be able to open and use my reference catalog on whatever computer I chose to work. Most computers can open Excel 2007 files, but that’s not exactly the case with EndNote. So I went with Excel.

What did I do? It’s quite simple. I created a spreadsheet with separate columns for important information pertaining to research articles: topic, author(s), year, citation, abstract, journal, and so forth. But the truly helpful column that I included in the workbook was the “full text” column, in which I inserted hyperlinks to the full-text versions of the article PDFs. That means I can access the full text of any of my references with a simple mouse click.

So now what I have is a large spreadsheet with 1,374 rows. Each row contains information about a research article that I’ve used at some point on a project or for a class, spanning a number of topics from industrial and organizational psychology, organizational sociology, organizational communication, organizational behavior, and the management sciences. In a few short moments, I can easily sort or filter the spreadsheet by any number of meaningful criteria, including the project or class I for which I used the reference, the article’s topic, author, year, and journal name.

Many of my classmates have asked about this spreadsheet and have found using it to be quite helpful. You may find it useful as well. Therefore, I created an example spreadsheet to get you started. Pay special attention to the comments regarding columns G, H, and I. Download the spreadsheet and start getting organized today.

UPDATE (March 20, 2012): It's been a number of years since I came up with this, so be sure to also investigate some of the new (and improved versions) of software out there that could help you with these same issues (e.g., EndNote, Mendeley, etc.).

UPDATE (Jan. 21, 2014): Consider using Zotero for organizing your research, NOT an Excel spreadsheet. Read more.