In my many, many years as a student, I have tried many, many methods to gather content and organize research papers. For some projects, I didn’t really have a system; I just typed it straight in as I was writing the paper. This only really works for simple projects, because you don’t have a way to organize and make choices about which sources to use and where.
One year I used an Excel file to collect quotes and information. But until recently, the most effective method of gathering my research was the note card system. Note cards were a great approach because I could label them, sort them, reorganize them, move them all around on the floor…and there were definitely papers that I wrote on the floor in front of the living room fireplace where there was room to spread all those notecards out!

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Get a Grip on your Research Notes Once and For All!
The notecard system works. And sometimes it is fun to have notecards scattered all over the floor. But, it has its own challenges. Have you ever found a great source, recorded it, and then couldn’t find it later? For a cafe scholar like me, notecards all over the floor is a recipe for disaster. And writing all those notecards is very time-consuming! I needed a way to study smarter.
I had been using Evernote for years, but had never taken advantage of all the neat features that have been added. But I stumbled on a great ebook about going paperless with Evernote, and I realized I could apply this to my research as well as my home. Now, I use Evernote as an electronic version of the note card system. I can keep track of much more data, categorize the same quote multiple ways, organize in different ways until I find the best fit, and carry it with me wherever I go. No 3 x 5 cards required! The best part is that this data is fully searchable – even PDFs and pictures.* I am going to show you how to use Evernote to collect all of your sources in one place.

Setting up Evernote to Organize Research

First, you want to set up a framework to capture all of the great information you’re about to find. If you skip this step, you’ll survive, but you will have to go back and organize it later. Let’s just touch it once, right?
The framework is really simple. First, I recommend creating a new Evernote notebook for this project. I do most of my Evernote organizing with tags, but since there is so much involved with a research paper, it helps to have it all in one place.  You’ll want to use this notebook for more than just collecting sources, so to help you out, I have put together a set of 10 free templates for planning your research paper with Evernote.  You can save the templates and copy them into your notebook for each project.
Next, you will want to create some tags for your research paper. Tags are a great way to label notes in Evernote so that you can search for your work by multiple criteria.  You can create tags on the fly while editing a note, but if you have them set up beforehand, it will be easier to be consistent and avoid having multiple tags for the same idea. Go to Tags in Evernote, and then click + New Tag at the top of the screen to add each new tag.

Create Tags for Each Potential Research TopicHere are some tags you might want:

A tag for the course name and/or number
Tags for type of source: journal, book, newspaper, etc.
Tags for primary and secondary sources
A tag for your main topic (such as “Civil War”)
Tags more specific to the possible sections of your paper.
These are the most important ones. You won’t know all the tags you want to create when you are first starting, but think about the parts of your paper and try to go from there. For instance, I wrote a paper about the influence of the Second Great Awakening on the American Civil War. Some of my tags might be “women preachers,” “abolitionism,” “new denominations,” “revivalism,” and so forth.

Scan your Research into Evernote

Collecting Research

This is the cool part – collecting all this information without copying it onto note cards! Here’s how:

Hard Copy Sources:

For hard copy sources, use the Evernote App on your smartphone or tablet. Create a new note, and take a picture of the page/quote you want to capture. I also take a picture of the cover or first page with citation information, so that I have everything I need when I go back to cite a source. Later, you can open that same note in Evernote and mark it up as you please.* The text within the pictures you just took is fully searchable, so even if there is something there you didn’t think to tag, you’ll be able to find it later. I also scan my written notes so I can find them later!
By the way, if you are having a hard time keeping your books open while you study or take pictures, a book stand or clip will save you so much grief – that whole trying-to-write-and-the-book-keeps-closing thing. I have this awesome book stand that I use at home (this one is heavy-duty enough to manage those really big “brick” books), and then this little clip that I keep in my purse or backpack. The clip works well if you are reading at the gym too!

Electronic Sources:

Here is where Evernote rocks. You are going to use the Evernote Web Clipper (your new best friend) to capture all of your source information.

Web Pages:

In the Web Clipper, do the following:

  • Choose Full Page
  • Under Organize, set the notebook to the notebook you have created for your research paper.
  • Add tags to categorize the source
  • Copy the source URL and paste into the Remarks section. (Since this is a web source, you need to be able to show the exact URL you retrieved it from so you can cite it properly in your paper later).
  • Click Save.

Use Evernote Web Clipper to Capture Electronic Sources

E-books such as Google Books:

This is one of my favorite Evernote tricks. Have you ever found a great source through Google Books or Google Scholar, but that page wasn’t available to view the next time you went back? Problem solved.

In the Web Clipper, do the following:

  • Choose Screenshot
  • Select the information you want to capture. Important: make sure to capture the author/title information on each screen shot so that you can cite it later!
  • Choose the notebook you have created for this research project.
  • Add tags to categorize the source
  • Click Save.

Drag your Downloaded Research Files into Evernote

PDFs Online:


  • If you are viewing the PDF in your web browser, Evernote Web Clipper will give you an option of PDF when you select the format of the note. In Chrome, a Save PDF to Evernote button also appears in the bottom right corner.
  • If you are not given the option to view the PDF in the web browser, but instead have downloaded it to your computer, you can create a note within Evernote and attach the file.
  • If you create a shortcut to Evernote in your Favorites (on Mac or PC), you can also drag and drop the PDF file from your downloads folder straight into Evernote.
As you are pulling together all this awesome information, feel free to make more tags if you think of more categories. Also, be sure to save your sources in Zotero so you don’t have to track them down later when it comes time to do citations!

Have you tried using Evernote to organize research? What has worked for you? (and what hasn’t?)

*PDF searching is only included with Evernote Premium. Students with a valid .edu email address can sign up for Evernote Premium for half price, and gain access to PDF and Word doc searching within Evernote, annotate PDFs, offline access, and no limit on the number of devices linked to your account.

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