I have to write a literature review for my master’s thesis. When I wanted to start, I didn’t know how to create a list of scientific papers to read and how to manage this growing list of literature. How do I keep track of all open tabs on my browser? How to find a paper X which used such a method? How to order and classify scientific papers?
There are Mendeley and Zotero, two well-known tools for saving articles and generating bibliographies, but these are only useful for keeping a list of papers. There is little customization possible at the folder or tag level. In any case, they never met my needs. Zotero only serves me as a bank of scientific articles, nothing more.
If you want to build yourself a real list of scientific articles classified according to your needs, as in the image below, continue reading this article to discover my method!
Why use Notion for academic research?
I was looking for a tool that would allow me to create my own fields to filter out articles that I found during my literature search.
- Rating to say how interesting the article is for my research
- Reading priority
- The main subject
- Reading status: to read/read
What sets Notion apart from all competitors is that this note-taking tool offers the possibility of personalizing everything from A to Z, which allowed me to customize the tool exactly for my needs and what I needed for my literature review.
Of course, the main disadvantage of Notion is that since it is a very customizable tool, the learning curve is quite steep: it is difficult to understand how Notion works when you start.
I started using Notion with the current project I’m going to explain in this blog post, so if you have never used Notion before, you should be able to get started with this project!
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How to use Notion to manage literature for graduate students
First steps on Notion & Creating the database
Start by creating an account on Notion. From the left menu, create a new page. Enter a title, and you can also choose an icon to represent the page! Then, select “Table” under “Database” to create a new database to start entering your scientific papers.
If you want to skip this step, you can directly start using the free template that I am offering you. You only have to duplicate it. The page will be imported into your personal space on Notion.
Now that the database is created, we need to fill it up! To do so, I used the Google Chrome extension from Notion.
Add scientific papers with the Notion Chrome Extension
When I’m on the website with the paper or PDF, I click on Notion’s Chrome extension and then select the database I want to add the new article. That’s it! The article is then automatically added to the database with a direct link to the web page.
Then, you can delete the 3 empty rows that were entered in the database automatically.
So, after adding a few papers, you get a database in which ALL of your papers are referenced, regardless of their research subject or methodology. Later, we’ll see how to create different “views” to sort through the papers.
How to get the reference of the papers in the Notion database?
I use the Google Scholar Chrome extension to get the BibTex entry for that paper. All that I need to do is to select the title of the paper before clicking on the Google Scholar icon.
Add properties to the research papers
Now that you’ve learned how to add papers to the database, the next step is to customize the properties you want for the papers! Properties are certain fields we can create to describe the papers in the database. There are many different kinds of properties one can create:
- Select (1 choice only), Multi-Select (Multiple choices)
- Dates (Custom date, Created date, Last Updated Date)
- Files & Media
- Tag a Person
Now that you know what a property is, it’s time to create some! To do this, click on a paper’s title to open the page. Then click on “Add a Property” and add the properties you want. Every property you add will be added to the complete database. You can start with just a few properties that you think will be useful to you, and you can always add more later as you learn to use Notion and discover new ideas for sorting your academic literature!
Here are some ideas of properties:
- Status: To Read, Currently Reading, Finished Reading, which is a Select
- Interesting? : 1 to 3 stars rating, using Select
- Link to the article, using an URL property
- The date that you read the article, using a Date property
Then you can add properties that are directly related to your search. For example, as I’m working on three specific Parkinson’s disease symptoms, I added a “selection” property that lists the symptoms the paper discusses.
The following image shows the properties that I created in my main database to give you some ideas and inspire you. I have a lot! You don’t have to create that many properties. For me, my database grew from week to week, and I added more and more properties that I found interesting for my research.
Add different views to sort your papers
The next step is to create different views to visualize the papers. A view is a way of filtering your main database and saving the filter with a specific name so that you can return to it later. You can filter the papers according to the properties we just created. For example, I created a view that will only show me the papers that I added the tag “To-Read”:
For example, the image below shows all of the different “views” I have of my main database.
- All: The main database that will show all the papers with no filter
- Comparison Table: A view that shows certain properties that I have selected. It’s a little bit like an Excel table for me. I use this view to compare the papers for my literature review.
- To Read: List of papers that I identified as a priority to read for my research.
- Read: List of papers that I finished reading.
- Symptoms: 3 different views showing only papers that are related to a specific Parkinson’s Disease symptom
- Uncontrolled Env: List of studies that were done in controlled laboratory environments
- Scripted Tasks: Again, this view is for my research, but it’s a distinction between different ways to evaluate the disease with smartwatches
Finally, here is an example of what my Reading List looks like, listing papers I identified as absolutely wanting to read:
And here is a screenshot of my “Comparison table” view that I use very often:
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I hope this article has been useful for you and helps you build the basics of your own Notion system for managing your scientific papers! Adapt this method to your needs, and don’t hesitate to share your projects with me. I’m curious to know what you will come up with!
Thanks for this post Marie ! I recently discovered it and I am using your template to manage the papers of my Master thesis. I never truly benefited from using Zotero and because I am using Notion for everything else, it seemed like the right decision to use it too for my research.
Hello Irene! Thank you so much for your comment.
I’m happy to know this was helpful!
Hi I am a PhD student and working on climate change. I also work a lot with big data and just started stepping on ML too. This blog post is very useful and what I have been looking for. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Thank you so much for your comment! 🙂
Very happy to know my post was helpful!
Thank you for your helpful article!
I did have a question because I tried using your template and wasn’t sure how to get it to work the way you demonstrated. When I’ve tried using the Google Chrome extension to add articles, I’ve only been able to add them as a separate page, not as an entry into the database.
Yes, that is possible.
When that happens, I actually drag and drop the item afterward in the database.
Oh my gosh, this is one of the most helpful articles I’ve found. Why didn’t I know about this before? It makes it easier to navigate and research. Thank you so much for these tips.
Hello Miranda, I’m so glad I was able to help 🙂
Thanks for this very informative blog-post.
I have been doing some google searching and I found an idea of have two linked tables.
it says for Machine learning but it is applicable to all fields.
Just wondering if you have worked with two linked tables and if you find this idea useful ?
The only time I used a linked database is to keep some important citations. I created a “citations” database, and when I wanted to keep an argument that might be useful for my thesis, I would add it to the citations database and link it to the actual paper in my Reading List database.
But for sure, the dashboard that I’m sharing in this blog post can definitely be pushed further!
Hi Marie! This is super helpful, and exactly what I was looking for. Such a sophisticated and useful way of storing research notes. I just wondered how you capture all of the details of the academic paper? Do you manually copy and paste author name, year, journal etc? I didn’t really understand the BibTex google scholar extension part?
Thank you for the template!
I’m glad I was able to help!
Yes, at the moment, I manually copu and paste the information that I want to have in my Reading List database on Notion.
Since I published this blog post, Notion has released their API, allowing some automation to be done. I haven’t looked into it yet, but you could search around that if automation is possible now for papers information 🙂
For the BibTex Google Scholar Extension part, did you see the gif I shared about that? Basically, I downloaded the Google Scholar extension for the browser Chrome. This means that I can highlight the title of a paper, and then, when I click on the extension, I can directly get all the BibTex information.
Hope this helps!
Can we make the thesis report or write a research article in notion?
Many prefer latex. Can we do it in Notion?
I don’t think I would suggest writing a research article on Notion. I prefer to use Overleaf, as it supports LaTeX, version history, collaboration, comments, etc.
Notion is better for Markdown!
Hi, I was wondering is it possible to import Mendeley’s library to notion? I have a 1000+ library and I would love to use my attention pdf. How are you dealing with the annotation of pdf? Are you using any pdf file or just doi with your own annotations for the paper within notion?
I am basically using this as a way to write notes instead of annotating a PDF on my iPad most of the times. I haven’t done a workflow that does both.
Since your comment, Notion has released their API, so it might be possible to import your articles from Mendeley to Notion with such a tool: https://tray.io/connectors/mendeley-notion-integrations
But I haven’t tried it!
I am considering adopting Notion and your post (forwarded to me by a dear colleague) is very useful! I have a quick question to help me appreciate better the power of Notion: what would be the difference between the Notion database of articles and a spredsheet (Google sheets, Excel, OO)?
Hello Patricia! Glad to know people are sharing my blog posts! 🙂
I would say that Notion can be like a Google Sheet, but the opposite isn’t true. In a way, Notion can be more powerful. The interface is also prettier to work with, at least in my opinion, and more instinctive!
It also allows to add “properties” to each paper, which you can’t really do on Google sheets (or would be more complicated to implement), it would mostly just be columns and rows. In Notion you can do that, but also have more information and see it from different views.
Hope that helps!