How I Take Notes of Papers

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This is work in progress. I still don't have a clear process on how to take good notes on papers that can be used in the long term.

This article is marked as draft. It is not in its final form.

From marginalia to a permanent note, this is normally the strategy I try to follow when reading papers or books:

  • The first set of happens on paper, in the margins of whatever I read. Sometimes notes take the form of underlining, not of actual writing.
    • Underlining allows me to quickly skim through the text to find the bits that were more interesting to remember.
    • Notes on the margins are normally pointers to things that are not written. For example, if something does not make sense I would mark it with a ? , if something is a conclusion, I would mark it with a ! .
    • I also try to draw on figures to make the link between the explanation and the data. Or if there's anything interesting not mentioned in the text, etc.
    • It is important to always remember that what is written in the margins of a paper is meant to be forgotten rather quickly. If I grab the same article a month later, most likely I will not remember why I underlined what I underlined, etc.
  • The real work starts by creating notes in my digital garden that summarize the findings of the paper. I try to keep notes concept-oriented, which means that each conclusion gets its own note.
    • I started struggling with two papers sharing the same observation, perhaps following different experimental approaches, or with different methodologies. To avoid this, I started slowly migrating to the idea of literature notes that are based on a single work, and then I can directly link to them from concept-summarizing notes.
    • Note : This is, for the moment, a highly experimental approach that may not work even for me.
  • I also take care of creating links to the techniques employed, because it is useful to get an overview of in which kind of works each technique is used.
  • Once I am done, I archive the paper in a folder indexed by the last author in case I need to retrieve it.

Technical Remarks

I do like reading on paper. I haven't found anything that remotely resembles the experience of underlining and taking notes directly next to the text. Perhaps tablets with Styluses allow to do this?

For digital notes, I use Obsidian and Zettlr (see: essays/choosing between zettlr and obsidian ). All the references are stored in Zotero and I access them through a unique index, like: [ @carattino2018 Gold Nanoparticles as Absolute Nanothermometers ].


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Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
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