How to Keep Track of Ideas You Read

Three methods and when to use each one

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Did you know that the British Library is the largest library in the world with over 150 million items?1

Interesting fact, right? But is it interesting enough that you'll remember it five minutes from now? What about five months?

Our minds have a lot going on at any given time, and storing information in long-term memory requires a great deal of repetition. Rarely will you remember something right off the bat.

So, when you're collecting lots of ideas and information for a research paper, you can't rely on memory alone. You need a system that will help you recall information when writing your research paper later on.

Here are three methods along with our recommendations for when to use each one:

Marking up the source itself

Many people make notes directly in the source itself. When reading books, you can write comments on sticky notes, or, if you own the book, you can underline or highlight important sections. Journal articles found in databases can be printed out, highlighted, and annotated.

While this method is quick and easy, it has some serious drawbacks. The information you've gathered is effectively embedded in your source material, making it difficult to pull it out and compare and contrast ideas from one source with those from another. So, although the initial effort is minimal, you may be setting yourself up for difficulties long-term since you'll have to gather all your materials together and consult each one individually when you want to start writing. You'll also need to rely on your memory more heavily. This method is probably best reserved for course readings that you need to have a general sense of but don't need to know intimately or use for a longer-term project.

The index-card method

Likely many of you learned this technique at school. While reading, you write each quotation or idea you think might be relevant to your paper on an index card along with its source information and the page numbers. You can also include meta-information on the card such as a key term that later helps you group similar ideas together. Later on, you place the index cards on the floor and start making connections between them. Since you're seeing all your cards at once, you can easily juxtapose them in interesting ways, which can lead to new insights. You can then start writing your paper by following the way you organized the cards on the floor.

While the blog writers over at Paperpile have summed up this method as "an analog tradition that falls flat in the digital world," I still see some value to it, especially for beginning students writing shorter research papers. Seemingly “old-fashioned” methods such as writing down notes by hand instead of typing them have been shown to aid information retention in a recent study. An ever-growing stack of cards is also a great visual cue for the ideas you've encountered. When you start writing, you won't feel like you're starting from scratch since you can actually see and touch your information. Also, when you group your cards, it's easy to see at a glance which topic areas have a lot of information and which don't.

One other advantage is that the index-card method gets you into the habit of meticulously keeping track of information that is not your own and making sure that you have all the necessary information to cite it later on. If you are very deliberate with this method, you likely won't accidentally plagiarize any information.

Of course, there are many drawbacks as well. For some disciplines a quotation- or idea-based method just isn't very relevant once you're at a higher level. For example, in the Life Sciences, papers are usually cited as a whole, and it’s rare to see direct quotations.

Even if you’re in a text-focused discipline, the method still has the drawback of taking a lot of time. If you have a few ideas on a page that you want to cite, it can take a good 20 minutes to transfer them to index cards by hand. So, while this method can work well for shorter research papers, it’s untenable for larger projects, such as a Master’s thesis or a PhD dissertation. With a project like that you might be able to fill a whole room with your cards!

Another shortcoming is that saving quotations and ideas on paper isn’t a great long-term storage solution. Once the project is over, how likely is it that you're going to store your index cards for other projects? Even if you do, how would you find a piece of information again if you only remember the author or a keyword?

Software that can help

Recording quotations and your own thoughts in a software program is like the index cards method on steroids. There are a couple different programs available that let you manage notes and ideas. With Scrivener, you can type in individual notes and then easily move them around. This makes writing a paper less linear than it typically would be in Word or Writer. While Scrivener was originally designed for novel writing, it can also be useful for writing research papers or a dissertation. However, one major caveat is that it doesn’t have citation management capabilities built in.

Zettelkasten is a program based on the Niklas Luhmann's famous Zettelkasten, which can be roughly translated as "note card file". This program lets you keep track of ideas and link them together. However, you cannot directly insert your saved ideas and their citations into Word when writing your paper.

Citavi is a program based on the index-card method. You can save quotations, paraphrases, summaries, comments and your own ideas as knowledge items. The program makes this especially easy when working with PDF articles because you can highlight text and save it as a direct quotation. You’re then prompted to add additional elements that you would usually include on an index card, such as page numbers, the core statement (i.e. the main idea), categories, and keywords. All the citation information you would usually have to write out by hand on an index card is linked automatically to the knowledge item.

Knowledge items can then be arranged in Citavi’s Knowledge Organizer. There you can compare ideas and move them into categories. This category system and all of the knowledge items with their corresponding citations can easily be inserted in Word, which gives you a head start on the writing process.

One final note: When deciding what software to use, consider your academic discipline. In the hard sciences you might find that a couple quick notes per source are enough, since you just want to capture the main findings of a paper. In this case, if you’re already using a reference management program, you may be able to make use of a tool you already have, since most contain a notes field for each source. However, if you’re in a field where you engage heavily with the text or if you have to keep track of many ideas or pieces of information, a program like Scrivener, Zettelkasten, or Citavi could be just the ticket.

What methods do you find most effective for keeping track of ideas you read? Please share them with us on our Facebook page!


[1] Wight, C. (2018). Facts and figures. Retrieved from

Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 8/22/2018
Tags: Knowledge organization Reading tips

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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