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Evernote.com as a tool for scholarly research

I’ve recently started to use the software Evernote to help organise the morass of notes I’m wading around in while doing my M.A. thesis (I am not doing a Master’s degree in any comp.sci related area – it’s a Masters of Arts in Ancient History, and my thesis is on an aspect of the Roman historian Livy’s writing). Evernote actually uploads the information placed in the Mac client to the web site (this afternoon I purchased an upgraded account to get more upload capacity). It has clients for Mac, Windows, iPhone/iPad, etc. However apart from backup, this is not really a feature I need for my thesis, although it might be useful to organise my life as a professional programmer.

This is used in conjunction with Endnote (my university supplies me a free licence) to manage my references and bibliography in the actual chapters I write (so far, one down, two to go!). Endnote must be used to manage the referencing and bibliography separately: most of the databases export the relevant reference import data for Endnote. You can also search the Library of Congress to get complete information for books that you need in your bibliography. Better than typing it all in by hand! Endnote will also handle reformatting the referencing method used (if you find the guidelines are different) and its creates a bibliography automatically out of everything you reference.

Back in Evernote, I drag all the PDFs of journal articles that I download from the various scholarly databases I search into Evernote, then I tag them with relevant information.  This gives me s searchable database of relevant articles. Then for each article, and for each book or other non-PDF source, I write up a set of notes into my word processor, and export that note as a PDF file. These finished notes are then imported into Evernote and I tag them with relevant information which helps me find related ideas among notes.

There are a few features that I think Evernote needs to have to be a fully successful scholarly research tool. I’d love to be able to directly cross-reference two notes directly, rather than indirectly via tags. Maybe even an ability to attach a note to the cross-reference, that would be super-cool, that way I could describe the nature of the linkage of ideas.  Fully notated cross-referencing is necessary for me because scholarly research doesn’t occur in a flat, one or two dimensional ‘tagged’ space. Tagging only gets you so far.

Speaking of tags, its tagging needs to be properly hierarchical. You can give tags sub-tags, true enough. However if you add the leaf tag to an article, the parent tag is not automatically also available. So you might have a tag Rome, which has a sub-tag, Republic, but if you add a note to the Republic tag, it doesn’t appear when you select the Rome tag. Which is a bit silly.

Another great feature would be an ability to do the tasks of Endnote. Failing that (it is pretty specialised), a way for it to co-operate with Endnote, e.g by linking notes in Evernote to bibliography entries in Endnote, would be totally awesome, but quite unexpected.

Also there is a small bug which means while reading a PDF in Evernote it doesn’t seem to obey the page up / page down or arrow keys which is a little annoying – you have to use the mouse, or double click to open the PDF in Apple Preview.

But overall a relatively satisfying experience so far.

UPDATE 28 June 2010: Via Google Buzz, my friend Shannon O’Neill put me onto the Mac program Papershttp://mekentosj.com/papers/ … I just had a quick look at it tonight. it certainly has some potential. With a bit of coaxing I had it authenticate against my university’s EZproxy and thence searching and downloading journal articles straight from JSTOR (online database).

There is no way to make synthetic notes that link different journal papers, though, which is a pity. Also the notes window is a little cramped, which is a pity.

I also imported my Endnote database and it could then retrieve at least some of the article PDFs so-referenced from JSTOR and other sources. However it did think that the couple of anthology articles I had in Endnote were in ‘journals’ but worse than that it also lists the anthology editor(s) as one of the paper’s editors. Oops. But all in all it turns out it might be useful tip. Anything to keep me from writing – I can now spend days if not weeks fiddling with bibliographic databases instead!

One Comment

  1. Jose Rivera wrote:

    Yes, that is right, I am actually using Papers for the mac in combination with DropBox to maintain my library available online.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 22:37 | Permalink