Recording your reading

flickr photo by Bernie Goldbach shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

One of the many tips from my preliminary supervisory meeting was to check Pat Thompson’s blog for advice, amongst many things, on academic writing. Being familiar with Pat’s work, I needed no further encouragement and in retrieving the url of her blog, her most recent post jumped of the (digital) page – ‘Making a Summary.‘ Pat outlines how important it is to write summaries of the articles, papers and books you read, so that two years down the line you’re able to bring to mind the salient points from each of the many sources on which you might need to draw.
We’re encouraged to ask three questions as we read:

  1. What is the purpose of the paper/book?
  2. What is the main evidence?
  3. How does the evidence contribute to or support the main proposition?

…with our answers forming the summary. Any quotations or observations can be added as a footnote. The metadata for the text can be held in a reference manager, which for me has always been Zotero.

This was a good lesson for me as this is an area I could have previously managed better. In the past I’ve tended to pull out significant quotes which illustrate the thrust of the text and couple them with sufficient metadata to allow me return to the original piece when I need to. I gathered the quotes as I read, arranging them under emerging themes within a single document. This just about did the job, but I never really had a feel for each of the texts; the quotes tended to sit in isolation, divorced in my mind from the big picture of each article. Pat’s advice will help here.

The area Pat doesn’t explore in her post however, is how to store these summaries. I suspect that over the three years, there will be somewhat more than a handful, so I need to find an efficient way of storing them in such a way that makes them easily accessible, searchable and … filterable?! I can see all those of you from an IT background shooting up your hands and spitting, “Sir! Sir!” Yes a database might make the most sense, but let’s face it, it’s the micrometer in the toolbox. Precise, incredibly useful for the specific task, but ease of use is not its strong suit. What I really want is the pliers; a simple tool, quick to deploy and sufficiently flexible and adaptable to be put to many purposes.

Here’s are a few initial thoughts:

  • A document. Extend what I was doing previously to include the advice from Pat in terms of content, but perhaps use styles and a TOC to provide indexing. Searchable keywords/hashtags could be used, which, when plugged into the ‘Find’ feature, could locate sections on a specific theme.
  • This blog. Each summary would form a post, then categories and tags could be used to order and filter them based on different criteria. I like the idea of being public, which in addition to encouraging me to be more thoughtful in what I write, there is the possibility that the posts might attract comments to help refine my thinking.
  • A (digital) pinboard. Also offering a public audience, pinboard applications like Padlet allow rudimentary tagging and subsequent filtering, but offer the additional feature that the summaries could be arranged and grouped visually, perhaps allowing patterns to emerge which might not otherwise be apparent.
  • A concept map. Another visual way of arranging these snippets of information whilst forming links and connections. Again this could be online and public, and again tagging, filtering and commenting are possible options.

The visual element and capability to physically rearrange information offered by the final pair perhaps lend themselves better to theme-building, analysis and interpretation, whereas when text needs to be shunted around from place to place, the first two make life easier. To paraphrase the quiz show Countdown, perhaps I need one from the bottom and one from the top?
If you’ve found an efficacious way of doing this and would care to share, do please add a comment.

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