Notion for Academic Research & Note-Taking

written by Marie

Last updated on: December 22, 2020

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.

For example:

  • 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.

Animated GIF that starts on the webpage of an article, then the user clicks on Notion web clipper and the paper is automatically added to the papers Database

Adding a paper using the Notion Chrome extension is very easy!



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:

  • Text
  • Number
  • Select (1 choice only), Multi-Select (Multiple choices)
  • Dates (Custom date, Created date, Last Updated Date)
  • Emails
  • Formulas 
  • 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 

Screenshot of the properties a paper can contain: status, rating if it's interesting or not, the URL and the date the paper was read.

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.

Screenshot of a paper about Parkinson's Disease that I added to my Papers database. We can see all the different properties that I created for my own 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”:

Screenshot of a Notion filter applied to the papers database. It says where Interesting properties contains "TO-READ"

For example, the image below shows all of the different “views” I have of my main database.

Screenshot of the list of views created for the Papers database on Notion

  • 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:  

Database containing scientific papers to read using Notion

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!

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