Best method for summarizing papers?
November 18, 2008 4:56 PM   Subscribe

My approach to academic papers is to read through once, then go back and type up notes on it. The problem is that my notes serve two functions: summary and commentary. What's the best software for making synopses of academic papers with personal annotated notes?

Most of what I what I write is done in the original author's voice. It's a summary of the author's key points, arguments, data, and citations to other works. But occasionally I break into my own voice and add some of my own observations or arguments. I want some way to delineate the two (and preferably, be able to easily print the file with or without my personal commentary). I've tried around with a few potential solutions in Word -- making my comments in a different color, putting them in footnotes, using the commenting feature -- but none them seem adequate. I tried hacking something up in LaTeX, but unless there's a really cool package out there I haven't seen, it doesn't seem to be made for this sort of thing. It strikes me that there should be some software out there that is tailor-made for this, or there's some method that I'm not seeing. Does anyone have any ideas? What do other people here do?
posted by painquale to Education (12 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
1. I use Zotero
2. Any paragraph in my notes that begins with // is my own commentary.
posted by Spurious at 4:58 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Most reference management software has a separate field or tab for notes. Endnote is probably the most well-known, and many universities have some kind of academic discount for it. I myself use Bookends. If most of the papers you read are in PDF form, you can comment directly on the PDF file with Adobe Acrobat, or Skim if you are using OS X. Skim lets you print PDF files with or without one's annotations.
posted by needled at 5:34 PM on November 18, 2008


Back in the day I used a spiral notebook (one of those half-sized ones, not the giant 8-1/2x11 ones) and left the first page blank. On the following spreads (a page left of the binding and a page right of the binding) I would summarize the article or essay on the left and put my commentary on the right. I lined my comments up with the summarized bits with which they were concerned.

The right pages were generally mostly blank, but I had my moments.

I imagine you could set up something like this in a word processor using columns.
posted by notyou at 5:44 PM on November 18, 2008

Response by poster: Just a note of clarification:

I'm not looking to annotate other authors' papers. I'm looking to annotate my own summaries of other authors' papers.

notyou's columns idea is a good example of the kind of solution I'm looking for. I considered it, but if I go on for pages without making any commentary, or go on a commentary tirade, then I'll end up with pages with a fully blank column. I was hoping to find some way that would more gracefully present and manage the two types of data.
posted by painquale at 6:40 PM on November 18, 2008

Endnote has two separate fields, "notes" and "research notes." I think that the idea is that "notes" will contain bibliographic type notes, like a table of contents, and "research notes" will be your notes on the work, but there's no reason you have to use them like that. You could keep the author's perspective in "notes" and your own in "research notes."

I can't compare Endnote to other software, because I only use Endnote. I also have a Filemaker database for my research, but that seems like it might be a pain in the ass for your purposes, since you'd have to construct it from the ground up.
posted by craichead at 6:45 PM on November 18, 2008

Just like craichead I use Endnote (filed under the "notes" section). That way my notes and bibiography are all in the one place. Tidy.
posted by lottie at 8:23 PM on November 18, 2008

Any reason you couldn't do something terribly simple, like change your text to bold and italic when annotating in your own personal text? Then it's in one singular document. And it's together with the part of the author's document you wish to annotate. Make sure you insert a page numbering thing in the footer of your document so that if/when you print out what you're working on, you won't get your pages (and thus, your annotations and sources) out of order.
posted by santojulieta at 9:25 PM on November 18, 2008

I have to admit that santojulieta's approach, just using italics or a different font or something, is also the one that seems easiest to me. But Tinderbox might be worth a look – what makes it especially nice compared to other note-taking applications is its truly baroque customizability. You can structure your Tinderbox data any way that works for you. In this case it would be very easy to create a setup that spawned two different-colored, linked "notes" for each book or paper, tagged with the author/title data.
posted by RogerB at 6:23 AM on November 19, 2008

N-thing Endnote. You can even customize the field-names and how they print in different types of output (report). You can get a student price on this and it also comes with the advantage of managing citations for your own papers/reports and producing a customized bibliography ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 12:12 PM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

I think I phrased my question poorly. I should have probably not made the question on the main page "what software do you use?". That obscured what I was really after. I was looking for a new organizational technique for structuring notes, and wondered if any had been developed... I thought there might be software out there that been built around such a technique. I guess that there isn't. (Tinderbox looks great and might be able to give me some ideas, but it's Mac-only and I use a PC.) It briefly flitted through my head that something wiki-based might be worth looking into.

I think I'm going to keep typing up my notes in LaTeX, and compartmentalize my personal commentary from my article summary with a function that I define in a separate tex file. Right now the function just puts the commentary in a pink box. If I ever come up with an interesting way to set my commentary apart from my summary, hopefully I'll just be able to change the innards of that tex file and recompile all my old notes to get them in the fancy new format.

All this clamor for Endnote has made me decide to take a good look at it. I don't think it would really help with the note-taking problem I have, but I could definitely use it for managing bibliographies. Right now I just manually toss everything into a huge swamp of a BibTex file. It's very ugly.
posted by painquale at 11:09 PM on November 21, 2008

I was watching this question closely because I'd like to do the same thing.

I've used JabRef before for my BibTex files, and they have a section where you can add a review (and another section for the abstract). I'm not sure this is exactly what you're looking for, but it might help.
posted by chndrcks at 8:37 PM on November 22, 2008

Woops, forgot to add the JabRef
posted by chndrcks at 8:37 PM on November 22, 2008

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