Academic workflow: Taking notes on readings, finding notes, writing papers

I recently joined the CSCL2011 Conference HK Facebook Group and Stian Håklev’s status update about his academic workflow caught my eye. He uses an impressive collection of technologies– Skim, BibDesk, DokuWiki and Kindle–along with “a bunch of little ‘glue-scripts’.” to integrate his note taking on PDFs, citation metadata, and ideas (see his wiki for details). It made me reminisce about my graduate student days, when I had what seems to me now to be an incredible amount of time to read articles, take detailed notes, and elaborate on emergent ideas related to my research.

Nowadays, I can’t do what I always used to do early on in my doctoral journey, which is take notes on each article (and I would read about two full journal articles a day) in a Word file saved as “Notes_AuthorYear” that I stored in a Folder called “Notes.” I would also diligently paste the text of the notes into the “Notes” section in my EndNote database. That means I had already manually entered the article’s citation info into the EndNote database. Back then, I used to print out PDFs and so I could jot down notes in the margins and paperclip a printed copy of my notes on top of my printed copy of the article. I would file that in a physical manila folder and file them in a drawer. If the article pertained to something of great interest to me, for e.g. design-based research or knowledge building, then the article and notes would get filed into its dedicated topic D-ring binder. Later, as I wrote up sections of my thesis, conference paper, or publication, I would maybe group these articles/notes into piles sorted by topic and labeled by post-it note. As I wrote, I would turn to these notes and sometimes copy and paste direct citations that I had set aside for this purpose from my Word file on the article.

All this paper meant that wherever I traveled, I carried around a big stack of articles. This was known as a “graduate student affliction” among the GRAIL team (Clare, Wendy, and I). Wendy and I felt compelled to carry around several articles in our knapsacks at all times, just in case we had a moment to read and review articles on our travels. Eventually, the weight of these articles became cumbersome, especially when traveling to international conferences with laptop, adaptors for different electric voltages, dongles, LCD projector, and other paraphernalia. Also, as I moved from a three bedroom house in the country to an apartment in downtown Toronto, I simply ran out of room to store my many banker boxes of articles and notes.

These days, I tend to read my PDFs on the fly as I work on various projects and papers, usually on very tight timelines. I read, in parallel, an enormous number of articles on myriad topics in vastly different fields. It doesn’t feel as satisfying as reading and taking notes on one article at a time. However, I can pull out the most important bits from each article much faster and write a concise line or two expressing the essence of the article in whatever I’m writing and move on to the next thing. I find PDFs in various ways. I might Google Scholar or search on Web of Knowledge. This lets me import citation info into EndNote, along with the abstract, DOI, link to library direct access to full text, etc. When I have the PDFs, I upload them to Dropbox which is organized into different project folders to share with colleagues in the office or around the world and also so that we can access them from different devices. I rarely print out PDFs, but rather read them using Skim on my MacBook Pro and PDF Expert on my iPad.

At work, I have a rather large monitor that I plug my 15″ laptop into, which means that I can have the PDF open (among many other things) on one screen as I write on the other screen. I have experimented with taking notes or annotating PDFs in DEVONthink, but I still find it easier to write notes in Word (as much I despise MS Word) using EndNote cite while you write because I prefer to have my notes ready to paste into whatever manuscript I’m writing. I’m pretty disciplined about filing my PDFs into appropriate project folders (e.g., a particular paper, lit search in a particular area, etc.) when I download an article. I have a strict naming convention of “AuthorYear” and am fortunate to have a remarkable recall for citations so I can usually find the article I’m looking for when I need it, even if I’ve misfiled it somehow. I tried to put everything into DEVONthink, but got lazy when I was on some tight timelines, and now I really have to get back into that routine for work.

At home, I really like reading on my iPad. I’m not normally so taken by gadgets, though I still do quite like my iPhone, but my relationship to my iPad is–how shall I put this–bordering on obsessive. Even when I am reading work-related material, I find it much more enjoyable to read things on this tablet device! I have ordered a stylus, but it hasn’t arrived, so I still haven’t experimented with writing notes or drawing, but I am looking forward to sketching designs on the iPad a great deal. I know a number of CSCL people who have Kindles, and I can see the appeal of a smaller device for just reading, but I like being able to do other things on the iPad. As an academic parent to a small child, I don’t really have a lot of time for pleasure reading (i.e., fiction), but I do indulge in the guilty pleasure of reading an article or two from the New Yorker when I have a spare moment to myself. I think I’d still prefer to read a paper copy of the magazine, but I have become much closer to the paperless office approach. Less clutter is a good thing, but I wish I could organize files a bit better on the iPad.


One response to “Academic workflow: Taking notes on readings, finding notes, writing papers”

  1. I am a university librarian looking into how the library can give support to researchers regarding reading workflow. This text is as an example of how technology has changed reading and personal organization of scientific literature. It also demonstrates that there will always be hard work involved. I don’t believe there are, or will be, any tools that will make keeping track of your reading completelyeffortless.

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