How to remember the keypoints from your academic reading?

Blanka Sengerová (29 February 2012)

In another post where reading whilst exercising was discussed, we've raised the issue of how people ensure that academic reading they do doesn't go in one ear (or more accurately one eye) and out the other. How do you make sure that two years down the line, when you're writing up your paper, y/ou can still remember where a particular technique was first used or where that all-important quotation was introduced.

How do you make sure that two years down the line... y/ou can still remember where a particular technique was first used

I thought I'd list techniques that seem to have worked for me over the years, and invite others to add their own ones to the list so we can share what works.

i) The PhD years are ones where you know you're going to have to produce a significant piece of writing at the end of the time, and you're probably as best as you'll ever be in keeping track of references. To this end, writing a brief 1-2 paragraph summary of each paper in your own words was very helpful for me.

ii) Get a reference library started and kept up to date (EndNote was very helpful for this, even though it can sometimes be a bit of a pain when you're writing papers and trying to share drafts with coauthors who have different versions of the library). It can take some time to get used to this type of software but you will be glad of it during the writing stage. Keep a copy of the PDF of the paper attached to the EndNote entry, it makes it easy to refer to later.

iii) In my field, there may be detailed biochemical descriptions of experiments with tiny modifications (metal ion concentration, enzymes from different sources, slightly different substrates, millions of other things) that can make a difference to conclusions (eg. kinetic parameters) so sometimes it is good to keep a summary of these findings in a table, with a quick link to the reference where a particular number came from.

iv) Make time for reading papers that is relatively undisturbed by other activities (music, being in the lab where others can easily knock on your shoulder, etc.). I find that if I let my mind wander, I might have to read a paragraph 4 times before I get the gist, and I am sure there are better ways for me to spend the time. It's also much better to have time to finish reading an entire paper, rather than going back to it. I used to spend a lot of weekends during my PhD visiting my then boyfriend by train, and the Friday afternoon journey from Sheffield to London was often used to read papers, leaving the journey out of London for pleasure reading, which always seemed quite productive.

v) Make sure you stay aware of new work published in your field, and include references to the newest work in your writing when relevant. Whilst much of my first year literature review in my PhD was useful for the final thesis, there were certainly several new key papers that had to be included, which were published during my PhD years. The best way of doing this is getting signed up to table of contents alerts for the journals that are relevant to your field (which does have the downside of many ToCs to sift through every time you return from holiday).

Over to you guys, do you want to add some more tips?


Tennie Videler
I've just been introduced to the Sketchnotes approach:  it really appeals to me, but I have yet to put it in practice. I can see it wouldn't work of keeping track of exact metal ion concentrations though...

Simon Smith
Thanks for starting this useful thread, Blanka.

In addition to Endnote I'd recommend Delicious, which I use for quickly storing and sorting my references. It's more flexible than Endnote because you can mix academic papers with websites and links to policy reports (if they are relevant to your field) and it's very intuitive and flexible with regard to how you want to index your library or add descrptive notes to your references.

I also use Google Docs as a sort of reading journal. I start a new document for each project (define that however you like), and try and write a paragraph or two of ideas about how a text I've read relates to the work I'm doing or planning within a certain  project. These notes are really interpretations or applications rather than summaries, because I try and capture my ideas about how to use the knowledge I've absorbed. This is a great resource later when it comes to writing papers, and as with the other networked software tools it can be easily shared among co-authors.

My other tip is very low-tech. I'm sure most of us still print out copies of papers we read and file them away somewhere. Too often, when I dig out a paper from my file that I'm going to reference, I find myself having almost to read it again in full to be sure I'm not misinterpreting an author's findings / argument (In spite of the tools we've mentioned!). So I've got into the habit of scribbling the 5 or 6 key points I took from an important paper on the front of my print-out. I do it as I'm reading, and they now serve as my definitive record of what the paper was about.

Claire Louise
I have to say I think Readcube from the Nature Publishing group and Digital Science is just brilliant, saves me from having to have piles and piles of papers on my desk and carry piles of paper around with me. I think what I like most is I can write notes on the pdfs and it's all very easily searchable.

Blanka Sengerová
>> [...] saves me from having to have piles and piles of papers on my desk and carry piles of paper around with me. I think what I like most is I can write notes on the pdfs and it's all very easily searchable.

That's a useful tool, I've never heard of it but may have to look it up. Although, like Simon, I used to have lots of printed out papers during my PhD, I recently found that this uses up far too much space, both in your filing and in your bag, so being able to have something to annotate PDFs would work really well.

Claire has also raised a crucial point about searchability - paper printouts are all very well but you can't do 'Ctrl-F' and find particular words very easily, which has recently become a hugely convenient tool, and does require your reference library to be kept in an e-form (which is also why my short summaries of papers were written in MS Word and not on the printouts of the papers themselves).

Amy Gravel

files... are categorised into nine different categories i.e. potential solutions, problems etc

After reading the comments I see most people favour keeping references on the computer. I do both. I have several files with all my references printed out, they are categorised into nine different categories i.e. potential solutions, problems etc and for each reference I have a print out. On the print out, I wirte a half a page summary of the document containing the important bits and another paragraph on how this could relate to my thesis. Also I have them all stored on computer in the same categories and I have them backed up on a USB stick. With regards to making notes on the references, I tend to write out the notes and keep them in the files and just scan them in if anybody wants a look. I know it's a bit old fashioned but then there's less complications and less time faffing with notes on the computer which takes me forever! I remember them just because I am flicking through the files so often. Although thinking about it, it may be quite a good idea to draw some kind of mind map on a big A1 sheet and putting all the key points on there and see how they interlink....

Sandrine Berges
I  really like Amy's idea. In fact, I sometimes use an A1 sheet when planning a paper, trying to put down all the thoughts I've had in one place and seeing how they connect. But really, I only ever take notes or classify references in view of a paper or a book I'm writing. So for my last book I printed out most articles and put them in categories in different document boxes. I labelled them (A1 to Fx) depending on their category and then kept note of what I had on a few A4 sheets of paper in a plastic folder. Very low tech. When I needed to write down a few notes on one of them, I'd do it on an A4 paper and put it in the same folder. It worked quite nicely. Recently I've been reading stuff mostly on my iPad, using Perfect reader, a pdf app which enables me to keep books and articles in folders so that I can keep a system of classification if I need to. When I take notes it's on a moleskin notebook, which fits neatly in my ipad case. It's convenient and means I can keep the same system as before, but it's a lot more portable.

Sandrine Berges
Since writing the last comment  I went over some of the stuff I've been reading in the past few weeks without taking notes, and the second, more targeted reading  was actually much easier than it normally is. So I guess this is how I do it: read once, without taking notes, and then have a closer look at the important bits, and take notes, or comment on it directly in whatever I'm writing.

Blanka Sengerová
Thanks for all the comments, looks like there are many ways to skin a cat, as it were. I am impressed by how organised Amy's approach is though it doesn't quite solve the issue of trying to be as paperless as possible, which I like to do (the less folderfull of stuff you have to cart from department to department, the better, I find).

I agree, Sandrine, the second time you read a paper you tend to be a lot more directed, same for me.

Does reading and note taking style depend on discipline? In my field, I can 'read' a lot of papers by just studying the figures and interpreting them myself, but I take it that that's unlikely to be the case with arts.

Beth Brockett
I use Evernote (MS also offers OneNote) to store and organise my summary notes about each paper. You can attach pdfs, word files and images. They also have a speech to text app for smart phones. You can sync the content between devices - so ideal if you travel a lot.

 I use Zotero as a reference manager (free up to a certain storage size) (which enables you to attach pdfs to the ref, take notes on individual articles and search your library for words and phrases), Mandeley is another I have heard is good. NB Zotero is open source and works only through Mozilla Firefox.

Sarah Davies
I'm really impressed by how organised everyone is! During my PhD I used to read very carefully, make notes on a hard copy of the paper (or book), and then write a summary on a file card, but I have to confess that this practice has largely got pushed out as a result of a constant sense of busyness and that reading is somehow too pleasurable or indulgent. Now I use Zotero to store and organise references - Beth, there's now a standalone version (though I think still in Beta) so you don't have to use Firefox if you don't want to - and skim read and highlight on the computer or iPad, if it's nothing too intellectually stretching, or print out and make notes by hand if I'm preparing an important paper or dealing with something especially complex. I do think being able to skim through and gut a paper of its important points is a skill I've built up over the last few years - though how long that information stays in my mind is another question...