Drowning in Data

How on earth am I going to keep track of all the information I need for my thesis? Not only do I have to read hundreds of papers, but I also have to make sure I properly cite any ideas I use in my work. I spent all of last week trying to figure out how to make blogs and wikis some kind of research notebook, but they don't quite fit--and my research supervisor's starting to suspect that I'm procrastinating. ;)

Index cards to the rescue! A time-tested way to keep track of random bits of information, index cards make it easier to capture, structure, and even shuffle ideas. They're sturdier than Post-it notes and more flexible than a lab notebook. Just about the only thing they won't do is actually write the paper for me.

Capture. I get practically all my information through the Internet. Even with focus-follows-mouse tweaks and all the keyboard shortcuts I've memorized, taking notes while viewing a web page or PDF file isn't easy. It's a lot easier and a lot more fun to scribble ideas on index cards, flipping the card over and recording citation details on the other side.

Structure. Index cards also make it easy to organize ideas into instant outlines and mindmaps. I can simply divide the deck into piles, lay them out on the desk or on the floor, or even stick them on my wall with some tape or sticky stuff. Physically spreading ideas out also makes me think about things that aren't there yet and find spaces for new ideas. Fun.

Shuffle. When I get stuck, a good shuffle will often kick me back into high gear or spark new connections between random ideas. It's a great way to review old notes, too.

Give it a try. Write down what you need to know on index cards, move them around, and see if new connections emerge. Index cards make studying so much fun!

Syndicate content

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


Thanks for this simple, but informed, idea. My wife has just started on a part time degree course and is currently feeling the weight of having to do research for the first time. I'll pass this on to her.

Neal | http://porkpop.blogspot.com/

This is exactly what I have

This is exactly what I have started doing with my MBA dissertation. I used lined 6x4 for the citation or source index card. I number these in order. So #1 is an article, #2 could be a totally unrelated book. I then use blank 6x4 for notes. At the top I put #1 or whichever source I am looking at and also the date (very important!). I can then doodle whatever musings on the card without using up space on all the boring citation stuff. If relevant I put page number.

I store the lot in a box and have the source cards at the front and the info at the back. The glory is that if I feel like changing the order (date order, or whatever I feel like), I can shuffle and rearrange as many times as I like.

And because index cards are portable, I can bring a handful of blanks wherever I go - including public transport! And I store a few in my desk at work for surfing internet at lunchtime - you never know when you might pick up a vital piece of info.

check out onfolio

Look at www.onfolio.com for keeping track of information captured on the web. Easy way to capture websites, images, pdfs, etc. and sort them into folders.

If folks are interested in

If folks are interested in software for these purposes, I'd also recommend checking out DEVONthink, from devon-technologies.com.


There were reviews with links on a million monkeys typing earlier this year. An Attic called DEVONthink is an especially good read.

not biased here. (-:


Another Idea...

I'm currently working on my PhD in psychology, and have been struggling with the same issues. I've found, however, that index cards don't really work for me - I tend to write too much for a lot of articles to fit on one card, and often different bits of the same article apply to very different sections of my paper, etc. Taking notes in a notebook doesn't work great either - I write a lot slower than I type, and I'm the kind of perfectionist who gets annoyed when my notes get messy or I have to cross stuff out. I've been using endnote for bibliography purposes, so recently started using it to take notes as well. Once I get to the point that I have a rough outline, I start a word document with separate sections for each section of the outline and start to organize my points and research notes in there. I will put the reference next to the point (e.g., Smith & Jones, 2005) but all the citation info is stored in endnote.

Anyway - to the point of this comment:
The one thing I've been finding hardest is reading a pdf file and taking notes electronically at the same time. A number of profs at my university have set up systems with two large lcd screens, of which I've been very jealous. However, it just recently occurred to me (don't ask why it took so long!) that I have an old desktop which is on my home network. The desktop is very old (a P166), but it runs adobe reader fine, so I can have pdf files stored on my laptop, open them on the desktop, read them on there, and take notes in endnote or word on my laptop.

Just thought I'd share in case anyone else finds that useful.

acrobat comments feature

i use acrobat's comment feature, which allows you to jot down notes anywhere on the document, then summarize the comments (which are organized by pdf page #), and print them out. then i have neatly arranged notes that i then manually categorize when at the writing stage. you can then also save the comments file itself as a pdf and link to it in endnote- this isn't very analog-friendly, but it's efficient and doesn't require the swanky tools of a professorial budget (2 screens indeed!).

Keeping track of information

I find a mind map approach works for me. The branches, sub branches etc. allow the relationships between subjects to be kept visible and new links made more easily than with just paper notes. Topics can be moved and linked differently at will. Links to the actual reference sources can be set up e.g. hyperlink to web, document, another part of the map etc. In the end you can still get lost if the map gets too big - so just create separate maps for the key subjects. I have found this is a life saver for finding information I have researched and need to get back to months later. Hope this helps.


i used tinderbox for my thesis when it was falling apart- a great program that allows you to define logical relationships between "boxes" of ideas/concepts- you can also insert stuff like images, etc.

GTD TiddlyWiki

Being a programmer, I spend most of my life on the keyboard. I find paper/card-based systems great for capturing information/thoughts, but I really miss the automated search capability my computer gives me. I've been looking for a way to drop all sorts of notes into a system that I can carry on my USB thumbkey. The one I'm experimenting with now is the GTD TiddlyWiki. It uses a single file to store everything in a Wiki structure.

Ref: http://shared.snapgrid.com/gtd_tiddlywiki.html

Post-it index cards can help, too

Just wanted to point out that you can now get index cards in post-it format -- also great for shuffling, storyboarding and seeing connections!


Kelly said:I tend to write

Kelly said:

I tend to write too much for a lot of articles to fit on one card, and often different bits of the same article apply to very different sections of my paper, etc.

Summarizing an article on one card is not the traditional way of doing research with index cards. Old-time users always put only one item of information on each card. One source, therefore, might yield a dozen different cards, each relevant to a different section of the paper. That would solve Kelly's problem.

Use a computer - really

As someone in the 4th year of her PhD - index cards may work fine for a while, but actually - I think you need a computer to keep track of a massive research project. Or, OK, you don't need one, after all people managed for years without one - but it'll make things a lot easier.

If you take notes on a paper or book, more than likely you'll want to cite it. This means that you need all the bibliographic information, AND you need the exact quotes with page numbers, AND you need notes. To do this on paper, I was taught in junior high school that you have a reference index card for each bibliographic source (in a different colour) and then white index cards for your quotes, each referencing the source card by author name. For a 10-page paper in high school I would have like 200. Considering I now have over 1000 bibliographic sources for my thesis I don't think this system would scale well.

I think a proper bibliographic database is really your only answer. I use EndNote, which while it has its drawbacks, allows me to store everything in a searchable format, and has the added benefit of allowing me to file all my printouts by author name, saving the headache of working out some sort of subject filing system. Also, of course, I can automatically add citations and bibliographies to any papers I'm working on, and it can change bibliography formats on the fly. No errors, no muss, no fuss. This is WAY better than paper.

For organising and thinking I use mind maps in the early stages, and print out my collections of notes and quotes from EndNote in the later stages.

Finally, others my find interesting the way that I've used EndNote and mindmapping software (FreeMind) to do literature reviews. It's here.

Please, don't use paper. You'll want to kill yourself later on in your PhD. My friends who started with paper always had a moment of deep horror and depression when they realised they would have to switch. Or when they had to reformat their entire bibliography in every chapter (this is often the same moment). Don't do it.

I see your point about the

I see your point about the advantage about using electronic, but as a prof I've gone back to paper for taking notes. I thought I'd mention a few reasons about why NOT to go all elctroic.

I still keep my biblio info on my computer (used to use endnote, but after a few horrible upgrades, have switched to Sente). I write notes on paper -- using a different sheet per each article/book. Why?

Reason 1: I found that most of the notes that I made on computer in grad school and up to about 4 years ago are no longer accessible to me due to changes in hardware/software, etc. So what did I do? -- I went back to the handwritten notes that I had stored away in a binder and haven't gone back to using electronic notes since. If you are diligent about keeping your notes organized (e.g, by author name, or by topic, or by both), it doesn't take long to locate the info you need and it's much easier to gather information together (as noted in the other comments -- you can just gather a pile for a paper and have everything you need, even when you're off at a coffee shop working on a draft of your article).

Reason 2: The majority of my job involves the computer and over the years (after 9+ hours on the computer a day including weekends) my wrists have taken a beating. Switching to handwritten notes has helped ease some of the pain.

From time to time, I will use my electronic notebook (Circus Ponies Notebook) to summarize some ideas based on my readings, but the original notes are always on paper.

Why not Latex/Bibtex?

If you used Latex and Bibtex (which are admittedly older tools), your data would still be accessible because both are text-based data processors. While some of these "antiquated" tools are scorned by some in the WYSIWYG world, I think that it has some merit in the aspect of not locking yourself into a potentially inaccessible format.

Just a thought.