Elephants Never Forget - But How About You?

Keep track of what you read and prevent plagiarism 

Photo: James Hammond on Unsplash 

You’ve got a pretty good memory, don’t you? You know exactly what you ate for breakfast this morning, what happened yesterday in your favorite Netflix series, and the findings of the main researchers in your field. 

Is all just an illusion?

Our memories can play tricks on us. In her book The Memory Illusion, legal psychologist Julia Shaw explains how test subjects were absolutely sure that they had experienced a certain defining moment in their childhoods. However, their parents later verified that this event had never happened. More troubling still, over 70% of the subjects were even convinced after their sessions that they had committed a crime 

It turns out that illusion and memory often overlap. 

Support your memory 

In your academic life, it's helpful to be aware of your memory's limits and find ways to aid it. This can help you avoid misattribution of quotations or accidental plagiarism. 

Create a system for keeping your ideas and those of the authors you’re reading separated. Create summaries, save direct quotations exactly as written and designate them so you won’t confuse them with your own words later on. This way you won’t get them mixed up, and you’ll know later on which ideas came from others and which are your own. 

One method is to keep track of the contents of texts in notebooks with wide margins. Add a direct quotation or indirect quotation in the middle and record your own thoughts and ideas in the right-hand margin. In the left-hand margin you can keep track of the page numbers. Bibliographic information (author, title, year, etc.) can be placed as a heading above each note. To really make sure you keep different sources of information separate, use pens with different colored ink. This can be especially helpful for visual learners. 

One disadvantage of this method is that it can take a long time to find information again. Thankfully, there are electronic note-taking systems as well. For example, in programs like Evernote, you can use search features to quickly find a note again.

In Citavi’s Knowledge Organizer, different types of "knowledge items" are designated by different colors. Decide if you want to type in a direct quotation or save a short summary. You can keep track of your ideas separately. Best of all, the link to the original source can’t be lost, since each knowledge item is linked to the book, article, or website that inspired it.

To help yourself find knowledge items years down the road, add keywords or categories that you will recall and recognize later on.


Regardless of the method you choose, your excerpts are extremely valuable. They will ensure that you cite the insights of others correctly and that you present ideas that are really your own as your own. 

In this way, your memory gets a break, you won't be confused when you're writing your paper, and you won't unintentionally plagiarize by claiming another author's ideas as your own. 

How do you ensure that you don’t forget things? What method do you you use to keep your thoughts and quotations separate?

Do you keep track of notes in a notebook, type important passages and your ideas, is your desk plastered with sticky notes? Or do you use notecards? 

Share your methods with us on Facebook.

Further reading: 

Bergman, Ofer (2013): Variables for personal information management research. In: Aslib Proceedings 65 (5), pp. 464–483.  

Blair, Ann (2010): Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the modern age. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.  

Shaw, Julia (2016): The memory illusion. London: Random House Books. 

Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 3/27/2018
Tags: Knowledge organization

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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