In a previous post, I listed three pieces of advice that would have helped me write a better thesis. The most important was to write up the results and setup of all experiments. With a paper research notebook, this can be a daunting and tedious task. How do you search for a particular experiment in your notebook? What do you do with a filled notebook?
After a few years, I accumulated several paper notebooks filled with the results of various experiments. Often I would search through them and be unable to retrieve information about an experiment I was sure I recorded. More often I would be working somewhere other than my office and not even have access to the notebooks.
For the past year, since I discovered Evernote, I have given up any attempt to maintain a traditional research notebook. At the most basic level, Evernote is a system to record, label, and organize notes. Each note is a collection of text, images, and other files. For my research, I tend to keep things rather basic and use simple text notes.
Evernote has several attributes that a traditional research notebook does not.
1) Searchable: All or your records become easily searchable. Now you can track down the results from an experiment performed months ago or recall how you solved a particular problem in the past. Evernote even allows searching within PDFs and images; OCR is performed offline making the images searchable.
2) Accessible: All of your notes can be accessible through multiple devices and through a web-based interface. Documents are synced between all locations, so there is never an issue of forgetting your notebook. Since the notes are typed, it is typically quicker to record your thoughts and provides the added benefit that you do not have to decipher your handwriting at some point in the future.
3) Organized: All of your notes can be better organized through a tag system. Each note can be given a set of tags to better describe the note, much like the tag system on wordpress.com for blogs. For instance, I like to use an “idea” tag. Whenever I get a research idea I cannot use at that particular moment, I record it with a tag. A few weeks later I might remember I had a good idea and search through the list. Usually I find my brilliant idea much less so after some time has passed, but it occasionally it proves useful.
4) Unconstrained: Perhaps best of all, I no longer feel constrained by size limits. Tables of results are not forced between margins. Shorthand is not required for long path names and complicated descriptions. I can copy in complete paragraphs of text for solutions I find online. I can add the list of script calls necessary to generate the results I am recording. Important information I would have typically omitted is now included as the barrier to entry is so small.
Evernote is my solution to the limitations of a paper research notebook. What is yours?