Literature/Journals,  Writing

Your future self will thank you: organizing notes during a literature review

So you found your citation manager, and you’re ready to tackle that browser with 25 tabs of “read later” journal articles. But how will you remember the major findings of each article weeks, months, or years from now?

Lucy Kissick, a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford, suggested the use of Evernote to organize the main points of each paper. Not to be confused with the citation manager Endnote, Evernote is a free note-taking software (both web-based and downloadable) that enables searchable notes, organizational tags, and collaboration.

An example of using Evernote in conjunction with citation manager Zotero

Lucy Kissick uses a trouble-free template to summarize a paper within Evernote. It simply includes Introduction, Premise, Methods, Results, Discussions, Limitations, and Conclusion. When reading a review, change these headings to match the subtitles in the article. The note is named by the author and publication year of the paper while the title of the paper is the first line in the body of the note. Save the template as a note to which you can refer when summarizing your next article. See how Lucy organizes her notes in the video below.

Lucy Kissick, from ThePhDiaries, describing how she uses Evernote.

To easily cross-reference the citation manager, my Evernote contains notebooks with identical titles as my folders in Zotero. Tags in both softwares help assign the literature to specific groups. In addition to categorizing articles using broad tags like “ovarian cancer”, “tumor microenvironment”, and “MYC”, I use “mechanism” to help collect ideas for the next experiments and “grant” to mark papers that will support future funding applications.

Evernote isn’t the only option. There are additional note-taking softwares available and the citation managers have a “notes” section embedded. Some academics prefer spreadsheets to organize literature. Stephen McQuilliam recently posted a tutorial (starts at 4:50) to set-up a spreadsheet like the screenshot below. It’s much easier than it looks!

Compiling notes using spreadsheets from @SteMcQuilliam

Tutorial to build your database with spreadsheets begins around 4:50


Lastly, Workflowy is another software to consolidate ideas. This web-based program allows you to create lists with infinite subitems to illustrate how all details fit within the larger picture. Subitems can be hidden, or selected as the new header, essentially hiding all higher levels to enhance your focus. Workflowy also utilizes a tagging feature and offers effortless reorganization of each bullet point. I used Workflowy to help organize papers and ideas while preparing for my candidacy exam. As you can see in the screenshot below, I focused specifically within the “HER2 Prelim” bullet, which then expanded the subitems (i.e. the main papers associated with my topic choice). Crucial details of each paper are summarized under the paper title and link. Ultimately, I use Workflowy to prepare for grant applications while referencing my literature notes in Evernote. 


Screenshot of my Workflowy account

As Lucy mentioned in her video, referring back to the database that you built will greatly aid in writing manuscripts and your dissertation. When you sit down to write the introduction, search key words in your note-taking application to quickly identify relevant references, speeding up the writing process. Regardless of what application you use, summarizing and tagging papers is key to maximizing the benefits down the line. Your future self will be thankful for the upfront organizing and note-taking.

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