A while ago, I wrote a piece arguing that we, as researchers in the humanities, need a better system to streamline academic digital workflow from reading to writing. Following that, I wrote a post introducing LiquidText, a very useful application for annotating digital texts. In this post, I will continue with the topic of streamlining the practice of academic reading and explain how I use RoamResearch to take connected and networked notes. This is the second post on how I created a digital workflow system for myself that works, as well as tips on how to set up one for yourself.
In the first post of “Streamlining Your Academic Digital Workflow,” I talked about using LiquidText to create connected annotations and margin notes within individual texts. Although it is a very useful tool, the end product (exported workspace and annotation) is still an individualized one, meaning that they will end up being individual PDF files saved somewhere without meaningful connections to the other notes you took on other texts.
Now we have a large number of margin notes, annotations, and highlighted passages on our hands, what is the next step? How do we better make sense of our annotations and margin notes made in individual books and articles? Is there a way to better consolidate, organize, and condense our annotations into concise and easily accessible notes?
A common solution to the above questions that most students and researchers are already familiar with is note-taking. You read over your annotations and margin notes, and you summarize the important points of the text into notes. There are many different methods of notetaking at this stage (e.g., lists, outlines, concept maps, the Cornell method), but most notes end up, again, as standalone products, such as those contained within a single Word document and/or on a few pages of a paper notebook. These notes would then be organized either into folders on a computer or sometimes into a binder (or something similar). When you need to go back to review your notes, you would have to go through the process of locating the exact file(s) on your computer and opening them up one by one. Or in the paper-based method, you would have to flip through the pages back and forth.
This method could be very time-consuming. A bigger issue is that it assumes that we think in linear (page after page) and uni-directional (file addresses on a computer) ways. But as researchers, we all understand that the literature we read on a daily basis requires multi-directional and networked engagement. When we try to make sense of the scholarly debate on a given topic, we follow breadcrumbs and take notes, but the most essential step is to see how scholarly discussions relate and talk to each other in a web-like network. This is very difficult to see immediately unless you spend time reading and rereading so you can write out these networked relations (as you do in a literature review); it is especially difficult when we are often trained since young to take individualized notes on individualized texts.
A great solution that I have found to this issue in our notetaking is the application called RoamResearch. It is a personal knowledge management system founded by Conor White-Sullivan around 2019. In short, the software allows you to develop your personal Wikipedia-like databases that contain ideas and notes that are backlinked to each other. RoamResearch also creates web-like graphs that visualize for you how your ideas and notes are connected. After having discovered the software in 2020, I have been really enjoying the tool to create and organize my reading notes both for graduate school and for my own research projects. It is a superb tool that not only helps you create interconnected notes but also shows their intertextual relationships.
Since I was in the process of reading for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams in the United States when I first discovered RoamResearch in 2020, I mostly used it to take notes on scholarships published in my fields in the past year and a half. For this purpose, I created a separate database on my RoamResearch account (you can create multiple databases for different projects) for my exams.
There are mostly two types of notes I create on RoamResearch for academic purposes: 1) Literature notes and 2) Permanent notes. For those of you who are familiar with the Zettelkasten method, these two terms might sound quite familiar. In short, literature notes are notes that contain all of the main arguments, interventions, and new findings in scholarly literature. Permanent notes, at least how I use them in my system, are notes that contain important ideas as well as the scholarly discussions and debates around them. I compiled my literature note and permanent note templates from Shu Omi’s Zettelkasten tutorial videos and from Jessica McCrory Calarco’s academic notetaking guide in her recent book A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum (Princeton University Press 2020).
To put it simply, after I finish reading Discipline and Punish, for example, I will go back to my annotations and margin notes to create a literature note on it, condensing all of the essential information I need on the text. Then, after reading other related texts on the topic of body and power (and creating literature notes on them), I might create a permanent note on say, the idea of “discipline,” that contains all of the relevant discussions on the concept since Foucault.
In both my literature notes and permanent notes, author names, as well as important figures, places, events, and ideas will all be linked by using a double square bracket “[].” For example, by putting [[Michel Foucault]] within the double square bracket, I create automatically 1) a separate page only for “Michel Foucault” and 2) a clickable link for “Michel Foucault” in my personal knowledge database. If I wish to link a sentence or a different note to him, I just need to type [[Michel Foucault]] and the mention will show up as clickable and traceable on the “Michel Foucault” page. This amazing function enables you to see all of the instances where Foucault was discussed and/or mentioned in your personal knowledge management system all in one place.
As you can imagine, RoamResearch would be a really great tool for writing literature reviews. With a well-maintained personal database, it becomes very quick and easy to trace how an idea has been discussed in various kinds of literature. Seeing how different scholars or groups of scholars talk to each other over certain topics also becomes a lot more manageable. Instead of having multiple windows open on different books and articles, or having multiple print-out copies of academic literature laid out in front of you, a personal knowledge management database like RoamResearch makes seeing networked connections almost effortless.
Despite all the love I have for RoamResearch (I could proudly say that I was one of the very first to sign up for their beta release at the beginning of 2020), it does have a few drawbacks. First of all, RoamResearch does not have a free version (there is now a 31-day free trial). The cheapest plan (Pro) is at $165 USD a year ($13.75USD / month), which could be beyond the budget of many graduate students or even researchers, although they also offer scholarships for researchers under 22 or experiencing financial distress. Second of all, all your data is stored in a cloud storage which may or may not be your preference.
Since RoamResearch came out, a few other similar notetaking and personal knowledge management systems have also emerged. A couple of notable and more affordable alternatives are Obsidian (free version available + nicer graphs) and Logseq (free version available + more intuitive). Both applications offer local storage of data.
In any case, RoamResearch (and its alternatives) have obviously started a brand-new era of notetaking and personal knowledge management. I have no doubt that it is the future. As a graduate student and a researcher who needs to engage with large amounts of reading and writing, I am quite grateful to the software developers for creating such useful tools that help us see the forest for the trees.