This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series How to take notes when reading scientific literature

My method to take, keep and search notes from scientific articles

Thumbnail - How to take, keep, and search notes

Last week, I was mentioning the importance of taking notes when you read scientific literature or even your lectures. Today, we will dive in my methodology when it comes to searching for the main piece of information and how to store that piece of information for later use. Let’s dive in!

1. How to find the most relevant pieces of information

After I’ve decided that an article is worth reading (I’ll cover that in another article), I go information fishing. In order to find the most relevant elements of an article (e.g. main findings, conceptual diagrams), I usually start by skimming quickly through the sections of the article with my favorite weapons: a bunch of highlighters. I personally prefer to print articles than to read them on a screen but I try to print only articles I am sure I will use in my writing. Milestones in my field. I will then go through those highlights and piece them together into larger ideas. This step should be fast so try not to stick to the details, skip the methods and focus on the big ideas. If you know speed-reading, that’s the time to use this skill. I personally can’t speed-read scientific articles yet, especially when the text uses a lot of jargon. If I feel it is useful or if the paper already contains a summary diagram or a conceptual model, I draw one on paper and take a picture with my smartphone using the Evernote app. Evernote syncs between all your devices so it is easy to insert inline images. For instance on Sunday I was following a webinar on blog marketing. I took notes on the go and was taking screenshots of the slides.

Summary of the four steps:

  1. I skim and highlight 🖍️(in PDFs or paper) the big ideas and important bits,
  2. I write down ✍️ the big ideas and quotes in a digital notebook (you can use a digital or paper notebook).
  3. I sketch ✏️ on paper a conceptual model or photograph summary diagrams from the papers, and add the pictures to my digital notes.
  4. I reference #️⃣ my notes to be able to retrieve them easily (i.e. codes, tags).

2. What to take out

Now you may wonder what classifies as an important piece of information. I split my notes into five big sections:
(1) Referencing that contains a code to reference a note in your reference manager, the original reference to the article, a summary of the main findings, a summary of the relevance of the research for the field and my work, and keywords or tags to classify the note.

(2) Aims that describes each aims, if several, in a few words. I like to reference them with a number to link them to the main results.

(3) Main findings to describe what results they got when answering the aims (you should see why I reference the aims now).

(4) Significance of the work that describes the significance of the results for my field and my work.

(5) Methods that describes their methodology.

The referencing section of my notes

The Referencing section of the Template

You want the template so badly?! Scroll down a little further.

Credits: Pierre Olivier

3. How to simplify your life with a digital note keeper and a template

In my previous article, I mentioned the importance of keeping notes and that you could go either for a manuscript note-taking or a digital note-taking. To be honest, I strongly recommend to go for a digital note-taking with pictures of hand-drawn schematics if needed (or digital drawings if you are fast with a drawing tablet). The main advantages are to keep your notes safe on the cloud, and to easily access them on the go. But if you prefer a nicely decorated binder and paper copies, go for it. Another big advantage is the easiness to classify your notes, and how you can use this classifications to search between and within notes. Now that I migrated to this tool, I particularly affectionate Evernote. Among other features that I will describe in section 5, I can keep all my article notes inside one “notebook” and add “tags” to my notes (i.e. keywords to describe each note), then use those tags in my search queries. With tags, I can find which notes broach a specific topic and refine my query by searching within the body of those notes.

However, in order to work properly, this system needs consistency. You need to consistently include tags, consistently reference your notes, and make sure you easily find the needed pieces of information once you’ve retrieve your notes. That is where Evernote becomes really powerful. It is easy to make easy-to-read and beautiful notes using consistently the same format. Indeed, Evernote offers the ability to make templates with tables, headers, and colors. I have to say: today is your lucky day! I already prepared a template for you that is available at the end of this section. The only thing you have to do is create an Evernote free account and add this template note to your notebook. You will then duplicate this template each time you need it and fill it with your notes. I use the “black background” theme for my Evernote. It should adjust the colors automatically but let me know if there is an issue.

Note Template

Download our Evernote template for taking your notes:
You will be able to:
1. Store your notes safely in Evernote
2. Make beautiful notes
3. Search your notes with their powerful engine
We will send you an email with the link to the template in a short while.

4. Evernote, a powerful tool with a powerful search engine

That’s it! You selected some useful papers, you read them, you selected information, you have Evernote ready, you downloaded your template and you even typed in some notes in there (so efficient guys)! What else can you do? Now it is time to use your notes while writing your thesis, whether you are a Bachelor, Masters or PhD student. Evernote comes packed with a powerful search engine able to OCR (for Optical Character Recognition) attachments, and wildcards (i.e. special characters and operators to search for variations in words) as well as special search terms. For instance, if I want to retrieve my notes that talk about “predators”, “traits” but not the “methods” section (remember I am a food web ecologist), I could simply type “tag:’predators’ tag:’traits’ -tag:’methods’” and voilà! I will have to explore the full capabilities but I am pretty sure there would be a way to search notes of articles published between two specific years. If you find writing a search query difficult (it would take me a time to remember all the search operators without writing a note about them), Evernote made things easy with a descriptive search mode. If I want to retrieve notes with PDF attachments, I can simply type: “Notes with PDF”. The search engine with then translate my sentence into a search query, that I can then select in the search bar.

Here-above, I mentioned the OCR capabilities. Indeed, you can easily attach images, PDFs and Docs to your notes and Evernote will be able to search within those documents. Even hand-written notes according to this article (though, probably not with my poor handwriting, I am becoming a doctor after all). Though it might not become useful for note taking, it would come handy when searching within multiple lectures. For instance, you are looking for a specific theory and you are unable to remember which teacher spoke about this theory nor in which lecture. If you uploaded the PDFs of the lectures along your notes, you can simply search for notes with PDFs that contain, for instance “ecological niche theory”. Evernote will go through all your notes in the split of a second, search within the PDFs and voilà! I don’t know what they feed Evernote with but it seems so fast and powerful that physicists could probably use it as a particle accelerator! Unfortunately, one is not able to grab text from PDFs or pictures of slideshows yet when Google Keep could do this (I am still hoping for this feature in the future). If that is a disappointed miss, don’t be so sure: Evernote comes with other unique features.

5. The plus of Evernote

You thought the fun would stop there?! If you have not been convinced already (and I have only been using Evernote for three weeks myself), go grab your Evernote account, your template, and start typing those notes! One amazing tool is the possibility to create internal links (i.e. create a link between two notes). One can use this feature to create a table of content by simply selected notes within a notebook and copy-pasting (from a right click) the “Note Link” into another note. It will paste the title of a note as an hyperlink that you can explore within the same window. If you want to customize those hypertext links, simply highlight the text that you want to use as a link, right click and add a link to it using the Note Link as its address. I am considering splitting the notes sections into different notes, and reference their links in the “Reference” section of specific articles. That way my notes would be short, light in text, and I could easily switch between the aim or method sections. Easy-peasy, life made easy. Last, if you want to retrieve your template or anything easily, you can create shortcuts for notes, templates, notebooks and even tags. I started using Evernote on a daily basis to make check to-do’s and even plan to write my book about Finland in Evernote. That is it for today. I am still in the process of exploring the capabilities of the free version but I will make sure to keep you posted. If you find any tricks or want to share any tips, make sure to post them in the comments below. I will share them with the rest of the community. If you need help setting up something, I would be happy to help.
Now, who can guess where I prepared this blog post?

Author of this blog post.

Pierre PhD student - CEO Ocean Fact

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