Need to Keep Track of Sources? Create a Reference Guide

My stack of sources keeps getting bigger!

It’s officially December, which means it’s one month closer to Dean’s Date. This also means that the time you have to gather your secondary sources, otherwise known as the preexisting literature on your research topic, is quickly dwindling down. I’m sure I speak for myself and several other independent researchers when I say that juggling multiple sources can be not only overwhelming, but also confusing. With so many articles focused on similar topics, how can one keep up with all of the new information?

Based on my professor’s advice, I created a handy-dandy excel spreadsheet to keep track of my secondary sources. Here are the important points I made note of for each author in my secondary source reference guide:

The Research Question

 The first column I have in my spreadsheet is each author’s research question (a.k.a. the RQ). Making note of the RQ reminds me what the focus of the article is and how it relates to my own RQ. Using the example of “Discover the Power of Femininity!” by Michelle Lazar, Lazar’s RQ is, “How do ads targeting female audiences in Singapore use elements of ‘power femininity?’” My RQ, in turn, is “How feminist are ads that aim to promote female empowerment?” Although my research is about ads that target female audiences in the US, Lazar’s RQ clearly overlaps with mine in regards to how ads are using feminist ideologies to sell products. In this way, I remind myself why this article is important to my research.

 Key Concepts

 Writing down the key concepts of each article helps me keep track of the various overarching themes I come across in my sources and how they can help me interpret my own data. In Lazar’s article, one of her key concepts is “empowered beauty,” finding beauty in all female body types. This idea can be directly related to the commercials I’m analyzing from Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, so I’ve also made a note about which commercials correlate with Lazar’s main points.


 Of course, the findings of each article are also very important to put in your spreadsheet, for referencing the results of these studies can help validate your own findings. For example, Lazar’s results showed that several brands incorporated feminist values into their ads in a way that only served to sell products, thus leaving out the political agenda of feminism. Although I don’t have my results yet, I hypothesize that my research will also show that American advertisements that are focused on female empowerment will have appropriated feminist ideologies for the purpose of consumerism.

Full Citations

 The final column in my spreadsheet is in fact the citation for each of my sources. I’ll admit, I’m not a stranger to waiting until the last minute to scrap together my bibliography. But having the citations already listed in my spreadsheet not only saves me the hassle of having to pull them together later on, but it also makes it a lot easier to relocate sources if necessary.

In this way, creating a spreadsheet has helped me to manage my stack of sources. It summarizes the most important parts of my articles and can quickly remind me what the key points are from each author. The column names listed above are how I’ve chosen to organize my spreadsheet, but of course, any sheet can be customized to fit your own needs. I hope this is as helpful to you as it has been to me!

— Taylor Griffith, Social Sciences Correspondent