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Research notes

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How should I make research notes?

Here are some suggestions on how to manage notes that you should make while reading both empirical and theoretical resources. (Field notes in ethnographic research or during participatory observation is a different game.)

Making notes slows down your reading, but should prevent you spending too much time on re-tracing the crucial parts of what you have read. If you can keep copies of your texts at hand, then your research notes can be limited to short indications of where you can find what. If you will not have the orgininals at hand (e.g. books you have to return to a library that will be hard to got to by the time you finish your paper), then your notes will have to be more complete.

Research notes functions as a paper trail, connecting your final text to the original source. Just like a finger print needs a paper trail back to the scence of the murder, your final paper needs a reference to the original source. Good research notes will help you to reference your sources properly and prevent accidental plagiarism. That is why your research notes should include:

bulleta complete reference of the original source, or at least an unambiguous code that refers to the complete reference (e.g. in your reference database)
bulletpage numbers in the left margin, so you can find the precise source easily, or refer to it when you need to
bulletquotation marks around bits you copied literally
bulletstraight brackets [ ] around ideas of your own, that you thought of while you were reading

So this is more or less what research notes should look like, as suggested by Umberto Eco. (Imagine this to be hand-written - my hand writing is illegible.)

Page 1:

page 2:

 

If you type quickly and do not mind having your computer at hand, then you can also type your research notes straight into your computer while reading. Make sure the same ingredients are there, as you need to be able to trace all information back to the original sources for referecing purposes. I often make notes in the 'notes' field of Endnote. Some researchers prefer Word documents. Others prefer to work with specialised software, that allows you to cross-link and integrate research notes, such as NVIVO. Personally, I find this too cumbersome and I prefer a table full of hand-written notes that I can shift around and organise.