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10.6: Reading and Note Taking for Research Papers

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    Figure: Image from Pixabay

    Now that you have chosen your sources, it is time to start reading and note taking in an in-depth way.

    Managing Source Information

    As you determine which sources you will rely on most, it is important to establish a system for keeping track of your sources and taking notes. There are several ways to go about it, and no one system is necessarily superior. What matters is that you keep materials in order; record bibliographical information you will need later; and take detailed, organized notes.

    Keeping Track of Your Sources

    Think ahead to a moment a few weeks from now, when you’ve written your research paper and are almost ready to submit it for a grade. There is just one task left—writing your list of sources.

    As you begin typing your list, you realize you need to include the publication information for a book you cited frequently. Unfortunately, you already returned it to the library several days ago. You do not remember the URLs for some of the websites you used—information that also must be included in your bibliography. With a sinking feeling, you realize that finding this information and preparing your bibliography will require hours of work.

    This stressful scenario can be avoided. Taking time to organize source information now will ensure that you are not scrambling to find it at the last minute. Throughout your research, record bibliographical information for each source as soon as you begin using it. You may use pen-and-paper methods, such as a notebook or note cards, or maintain an electronic list. (If you prefer the latter option, many office software packages include embedded programs for recording bibliographic information and there are a number of online programs to help you format your bibliographic entries.)

    The following table, 10.6 -- “Details for Commonly Used Source Types,” shows the specific details you should record for commonly used source types. Use these details to develop a working bibliography—a preliminary list of sources that you will later use to develop the references section of your paper. You may wish to record information using the formatting system of the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Modern Language Association (MLA), which will save a step later on. For most composition classes, professors will require MLA format.

    Table 10.6 -- Details for Commonly Used Source Types

    Source Type

    Necessary Information


    Author(s), title and subtitle, publisher, city of publication, year of publication

    Essay or article published in a book

    Include all the information you would for any other book. Additionally, record the essay’s or article’s title, author(s), the pages on which it appears, and the name of the book’s editor(s).

    Article in a periodical

    Author(s), article title, publication title, date of publication, volume and issue number, and page numbers

    Online source

    Author(s) (if available), article or document title, organization that sponsors the site, database name (if applicable), date of publication, optional -- check with your professor), date you accessed the site, and URL


    Name of person interviewed, method of communication, date of interview

    Exercise 1

    Create a working bibliography using the format that is most convenient for you. List at least five sources you plan to use. Continue to add sources to your working bibliography throughout the research process. If you decide not to use a source, you can delete it.


    You may want to keep a special folder in your computers file system to hold research you've found for your paper so that you can find it all easily.

    Taking Notes Efficiently

    Good researchers stay focused and organized as they gather information from sources. Before you begin taking notes, take a moment to step back and think about your goal as a researcher—to find information that will help you answer your research question. When you write your paper, you will present your conclusions about the topic supported by research. That goal will determine what information you record and how you organize it.

    Writers sometimes get caught up in taking extensive notes, so much so that they lose sight of how their notes relate to the questions and ideas they started out with. Remember that you do not need to write down every detail from your reading. In fact, it is better to take notes on the main ideas and annotate based on your thoughts. If you find an especially interesting quote, but it isn't a main idea -- just highlight it and write down your thoughts about it -- again, just like a conversation. These might help you develop your analysis and explanation when drafting your paper. Focus mainly on finding and recording main ideas and important points that will help you answer your research questions.

    The following strategies will help you take and organize notes efficiently.

    Use Themed Headings and Color Coding to Organize Ideas

    If you created a mind map or KWL+ chart during any part of the early phase of thinking about your research paper, you may have already pre-identified some themes that you might focus on while you are reading. Inevitably you will find other repeating opinions or thoughts about the topic. You might also find some that stand out on their own as an innovative way of looking at the topic. For instance, when Miguel researches his question about low-carbohydrate diets, he will likely find opinions about energy needs, the standard American diet (SAD), and synthesis of fats and carbohydrates while burning calories. He also will likely find various people's personal experiences with such diets. He did not expect to find information about the carbohydrate needs of people going through various disease process, such as fighting cancer, however. When Miguel found in a couple of different article that the carbohydrate needs of people with certain diseases were different from the average person, he identified a new theme and an unexpected viewpoint. He added this to the subtopics he planned to cover.

    As you read, you will inevitably find some recurring subtopics, opinions, or themes regarding your research question. If you have a large number of sources. and they are printed or in an e-reader with annotation tools, it can be helpful to identify and color code for these themes, especially if you are a visual learner. You can do this by matching a color of a sticky note or flag or e-highlighter for each theme you identify. Then, as you read, along with your written annotations, you can place a flag, sticky note or highlight in the appropriate color on that page for that theme. Usually, research papers are organized by subtopic or theme, so as you develop each section later on, you can more easily find the relevant points each writer makes about the topic or theme. This will help avoid the "patchwork" problem that occurs when you just try to works with one author at a time rather than one theme at a time. You will also more easily be able to find your reactions and thoughts about each topic.


    Central Question:

    Why Is No One Doing Anything about Violence Against Native American Women?

    Native American women’s voices

    Strange Law Enforcement Boundaries

    Bad Statistics


    Psychology of Trauma

    Exercise 2

    Choose a color for each theme/major topic in your notes. As you read and annotate, place a sticky note in the relevant color wherever you see that an author is writing about that theme/major topic. If you are using an e-reader, highlight the quote or section of the text with that highlighter color.

    Maintain Complete, Accurate Notes

    Regardless of the format used, any notes you take should include enough information to help you organize ideas and locate them instantly in the original text if you need to review them. Make sure your notes include the following elements:

    • Heading summing up the main topic covered
    • Author’s name, a source code, or an abbreviated source title
    • Page number
    • Full URL of any pages buried deep in a website

    Throughout the process of taking notes, be scrupulous about making sure you have correctly attributed each idea to its source. Always include source information so you know exactly which ideas came from which sources. Use quotation marks to set off any words for phrases taken directly from the original text. If you add your own responses and ideas, make sure they are distinct from ideas you quoted or paraphrased.

    Make sure your notes accurately reflect the content of the original text. Make sure quoted material is copied verbatim with no mistakes. If you omit words from a quotation, use ellipses to show the omission and make sure the omission does not change the author’s meaning. Paraphrase ideas carefully, and check your paraphrased notes against the original text to make sure that you have restated the author’s ideas accurately in your own words.

    You may also want to start a document where you begin to organize your notes by topic or theme (not by author). In your document, using bold headers so you can easily find them later when typing in notes, type in the themes or topics that you have identified. Then, after you read a source, place the quote or paraphrase you identified while reading, along with the important source information mentioned in the bulleted list, above, in that section. If you wrote down an annotation with your thoughts along with the quote, make sure you get that into your document (you may or may not use it later).

    Here is an example of what that document may look like during the process:

    Central Question:

    Why Is No One Doing Anything about Violence Against Native American Women?

    Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada have been experiencing an extraordinary amount of violence and murder for years, but only recently has their plight been receiving some media and government attention.

    Native American women’s voices

    Brown, Alleen. “Indigenous Women Have Been Disappearing for Generations. Politicians Are Finally Starting to Notice.” The Intercept. 2018, May 31. Retrieved from

    Strange Law Enforcement Boundaries

    It is difficult to gather information because of the patchwork of laws and authority from various jurisdictions (the tribal authorities, local police, state police, and the FBI and Canadian federal police).

    Bad Statistics

    Healy, Jack. “In Indian County, A Crisis of Missing Women. And a New One When They’re Found.” New York Times. 2019, Dec. 25. Retrieved from

    Also, when record-keeping does happen, many Indigenous women are miscategorized and, thus, are not recognized as Native in the statistics

    “Activists describe the crisis as a legacy of generations of government policies of forced removal, land seizures and violence inflicted on Indigenous people. Hundreds of the missing never return, and families said they have struggled to find counseling and treatment for those who do. Some are trying to cope with the trauma of being trafficked. Some are confronting addiction or grappling with violence they suffered on the streets. Some had fled abuse at home and do not have a safe place to welcome them back” (Healy).


    So there a number of questions here – who is luring women and girls (or just taking them) to be trafficked and why has so little attention been paid to this problem? Part of this issue is the more than 500-plus-year legacy of brutal colonization.

    Psychology of Trauma

    Alvarez, A. and Bachman, R. Violence: The Enduring Problem. 2017. Sage.

    Could such treatment of Indigenous women (no matter who the culprits are) be a matter of learned behavior that is passed down through generations (Alvarez and Bachman)? It seems that’s partly possible because otherwise how would outside people know whether to go to kidnap women on a reservation?

    Exercise 3

    After you have annotated your texts(s), create a document in a word processing program with color-coded headers for each of the themes or sub-topics you have identified. Place the relevant quotes or paraphrases under each header with the source and page number, and write down your thoughts about that quote or paraphrase

    Know When to Summarize, Paraphrase, or Directly Quote a Source

    Your notes will fall under three categories—summary notes, paraphrased information, and direct quotations from your sources. Effective researchers make choices about which types of notes are most appropriate for their purposes.

    • Summary notes sum up the main ideas in a source in a few sentences or a short paragraph. A summary is considerably shorter than the original text and captures only the major ideas. Use summary notes when you do not need to record specific details but you intend to refer to broad concepts the author discusses.
    • Paraphrased notes restate a fact or idea from a source using your own words and sentence structure.
    • Direct quotations use the exact wording used by the original source and enclose the quoted material in quotation marks. It is a good strategy to copy direct quotations when an author expresses an idea in an especially lively or memorable way. However, do not rely exclusively on direct quotations in your note taking.

    Most of your notes should be paraphrased from the original source. Paraphrasing as you take notes is usually a better strategy than copying direct quotations, because it forces you to think through the information in your source and understand it well enough to restate it. Also, the majority of the information in most research writing is paraphrased, so it is a good skill to practice. In short, paraphrasing helps you stay engaged with the material instead of simply copying and pasting. It will also allow you to synthesize the ideas more easily later when you begin planning and drafting your paper. (For detailed guidelines on summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting, see "Summarizing" and "Working with Sources").

    Use a System That Works for You

    There are several formats you can use to take notes. No technique is necessarily better than the others—it is more important to choose a format you are comfortable using. Choosing the format that works best for you will ensure your notes are organized, complete, and accurate. Consider implementing one of these formats when you begin taking notes:

    • Annotate directly on your sources. This method involves making handwritten notes in the margins of sources that you have printed or photocopied and or taking notes on an e-reader. This works well with the color-coding strategy mentioned above, but does require a two-step process to then get the notes organized so that the ideas can be synthesized.
    • Use index cards. This traditional format involves writing each note on a separate index card. It takes more time than copying and pasting into an electronic document, which encourages you to be selective in choosing which ideas to record. Recording notes on separate cards makes it easy to later organize your notes according to major topics. Some writers color-code their cards to make them still more organized.
    • Use note-taking software. Word-processing and office software packages often include different types of note-taking software. Although you may need to set aside some time to learn the software, this method combines the speed of typing with the same degree of organization associated with handwritten note cards.
    • Create a word processing document. This strategy is less comprehensive than note-taking software but, as explained above in "Maintain Complete, Accurate Notes," it will allow you to more easily make the transition between recording and organizing your notes.
    • Maintain a research notebook. Instead of using index cards or electronic note cards, you may wish to keep a notebook, allotting a few pages (or one file) for each of your sources. This method makes it easy to create a separate column or section of the document where you add your responses to the information you encounter in your research. This is basically the low-tech version of the strategy previously mentioned.

    Annotated Bibliographies

    Although they can be quite a bit of work, annotated bibliographies help you ensure that you understand the general gist of what you are reading and think about whether and how a source will be useful for you. It is the beginning step of synthesizing your ideas.

    The annotated bibliography should have at least the number of entries that are required by your instructor's research assignment. They should all be suitable and trustworthy, as discussed in section 5.5. These are the sources you will use in your research paper although it is possible that your final paper will have some sources that aren't included here and that you end up not using some sources that you do list here. This is because of the recursive nature of the research process.

    Each entry of an annotated bibliography should have the following components:

    • A bibliographic (Works Cited) entry formatted according to MLA or APA (depending on what is required in your class).
    • A short paragraph (three to five sentences) summarizing the source in your own words. When using a research paper as a source, do not use an abstract as your summary. Write the paragraph in your own words.
    • A short paragraph stating your opinion about the source -- is it well written and credible? Do the ideas seem logically and fully expressed? Is there enough support to back up the author's assertions? This critique paragraph (again, about three to four sentences) takes into account the items you considered when determining whether the source was credible, but in a way that relates more to the details of the source.
    • One final short paragraph (two to three sentences) about how the source will help you write your paper. Will you use it in any particular section or for any particular purpose?

    The entries in your annotated bibliography should appear in the same order you would include them on a Works Cited page -- alphabetized by author. On your final Works Cited page with your final paper, however, you should not include any of the paragraphs that appear in the annotated bibliography; just include the bibliographic entry. In addition, the Works Cited page on your final paper should only include those sources that you actually ended up using in your final paper.

    Example Annotated Bibliography Entry

    Camorlinga, S. and Barker, K. "A complex adaptive system based on squirrel behavior for distributed resource allocation." Web Intelligence and Agent Systems: An

    International Journal 4, 2006, pp. 1-23.

    This journal article by two Canadian researchers describes how they use squirrel hoarding behavior as a model for creating an algorithm for figuring out the most efficient distributed storage solutions for computer networks. They also test whether such an algorithm is scalable to larger distributed systems.

    This article is technical, specific, and clear regarding the rationale for the model. The testing is easy to follow, as is the way in which one can use it in larger systems. Because this is innovative, the article is understandably long because they must provide a strong rationale for the research because not too many people have done this specific sort of work.

    This research provides a perspective that was innovative ten years ago when it was written. I will use it as a basis of my research to see if the algorithm or model has been refined, if it has been replicated, and whether it's actually in use.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 10.6: Reading and Note Taking for Research Papers is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .