Uncommon Ground

Getting organized in 2018 – Evernote as a research tool

Introduction to the series

Last week I described how I get pen and paper notes into Evernote so that I have copies of notes associated with meetings in an easily accessible electronic form regardless of whether I’m working on my MacBook, my iPhone, my iPad, or my iMac.1 This week I’ll describe how I use it as a “research” tool. I put research in quotes, because I don’t use it systematically for scholarly research the way some people do.

Scanning or typing notes into Evernote is very straightforward, but what do you do if you are investigating a topic (or simply reading some news) in your web browser and you find an article you want to save?

If you’re on a laptop or desktop and working in your browser, you’ll want to install the Evernote Web Clipper for your browser.2 Once you have the web clipper installed it’s very easy. When you’re on a web page you want to save, just click on the little elephant head icon in your menu bar, and a login screen will pop up where you enter your e-mail address or username, followed by one that will ask for your password. Once you’ve signed in, you’re good for 30 days. Then you’ll have the option to save the article, a simplified article, the full page, a bookmark, or a screenshot. The web clipper remembers your last choice. I typically use the “simplified article” option. It saves all of the text and relevant images without all of the “cruft” that’s on most pages. You’ll see an example from Sunday’s New York Times on the left. You’ll notice that you can also specify which notebook you want the clipping saved in and you can add any tags that you want.3 You can also add your own text notes about what you’re saving before the note is saved (or you can add them later if you call it up again in Evernote and want to add something then).

The process is much the same on my iPhone or iPad. If I’m on a web page that I want to save, I just hit the little icon that I’d use to send a link by e-mail or text message and select Evernote instead. Again I can select a notebook and add tags. I can also add a note if I want. What I can’t do4 is save the page in a “simplified article” format. As a result, web pages I save from my iPhone or iPad often have a lot of “cruft.” They’re legible, but cluttered. If that really bothers me, though, I just open up that note in Evernote on my laptop or desktop, use the embedded link in the note to visit the webpage again and use the webclipper in my browser to get a simplified article.

I probably clip half a dozen articles per day from things I’m reading. They might be articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed that I want to hang on to because they may have information or ideas that could be relevant to my work as Dean of The Graduate School, they might be an article from a scientific journal that I want to save somewhere in addition to or instead of my bibliographic software,5 or they might be a blog post on a topic that is interesting or important that I don’t want to lose.

I have more than 20,000 notes in Evernote now, and because they’re all searchable, I can easily find notes I’ve collected on a variety of different topics, whether they’re tagged by a particular topic, stored in a particular notebook.6, or simply in the body of the note.

I should point out that these abilities aren’t unique to Evernote. I have used OneNote only a little, but it seems to provide many of the same features. If you have it available to you as part of an Office 365 subscription, you might want to investigate its features before trying Evernote. I use Evernote because I’ve been using it for 10 years, I’m happy with it, it’s familiar, and it’s integrated into my workflow. If I were starting from scratch, I’m not sure it would be my application of choice, but it’s served me very well, and I don’t have plans to change.

If I’ve piqued your interest in using Evernote for research, whether for the simple kind of web clipping I do – “research” in the lightweight sense that I’m studying topics and saving things for future reference – or for serious scholarly research – compiling notes and references for systematic literature reviews and the like – here are a few links you’ll want to investigate:

  1. Next week I plan to describe how I use Dropbox. Notes that don’t make it into Evernote make it into Dropbox as PDFs. A reasonable fraction of things that find their way into Evernote are also sitting on Dropbox. Since they’re PDFs, I don’t have to worry about duplication. Neither copy is changing. Having them in both places allows me to find them quickly in a couple of different ways.
  2. I have it installed for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari so that I have it handy regardless of which browser I happen to be using. (I mostly use Firefox, but I fire up the others occasionally.)
  3. I’m not going to get into the notebook vs. tagging debate. Some people are very passionate about it. I don’t have a “system”. I use both, but I’m not systematic about it. For me it doesn’t make a lot of difference, since notes are fully searchable anyway.
  4. Or I haven’t discovered how to do
  5. For example, if I see an article in Nature about PhD career preparation, I’ll save it in my “Graduate Education” notebook with a “Career and professional development” tag. Similarly, I might see an article on arXiv or in a statistics journal that is relevant to a broad statistical problem I’ve been following. I’ll save it in my default notebook with a “Statistics” tag. It may not be an article I ever refer to in a published paper, but it could still be useful background information that I don’t want to forget.
  6. One way I find notebooks useful is for collecting information about a particular topic that I want to share with another Evernote user.

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