When taking notes while studying papers or concepts I'm always torn between

  1. classic pen & paper approach, which I personally find more productive;
  2. digital approach, will make it easier to find/sort/filter information later

I'm going to be a Computer Science Ph.D student, so I have to be quite productive (solution 1), but also, to work on the long term, so building my own "knowledge database" (sol. 2) makes sense.

I am currently thinking about developing my own tool based on markdown notes, git version & a query tools to find information, to tag/link items as well a generate bibliography etc.

What is considered the most useful way of taking notes, particularly for non-class settings?

  • Write and publish papers, rather than take notes.
    – user2768
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:29
  • 6
    @user2768: Pretty hard to write and publish papers without first having a thorough knowledge and understanding of the literature. Taking notes helps a lot with that. Jan 20, 2017 at 14:36
  • 2
    Are you asking about taking notes in class, or outside of class (e.g., when reading a textbook or journal article)?
    – mhwombat
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:50
  • 5
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a survey, not a question. Jan 20, 2017 at 15:44
  • 1
    Surface Pro with OneNote. Get the handwritten you crave and the digital cut-n-paste ease you need. Jan 20, 2017 at 16:20

4 Answers 4


In this article, "The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard," the researchers tested this very issue. They found that taking notes with pen and paper is more effective... but, that was because students who typed their notes were copying lectures verbatim whereas students who took notes by hand were taking in the information and then writing it in their own words (thus processing the info at a deeper level).

So, the key is the way you process the information, not necessarily the method you use to take notes. But, at the same time, it is noteworthy (no pun intended) that longhand notes tends to lead to that deeper level of processing more so than does taking notes digitally.

Personally, I'm all about taking notes longhand, and I print out articles that are important to me/my work.


When it comes to knowledge I make the (admittedly vague) distinction between general knowledge anyone in the field would have and specific knowledge that an expert probably would need to look up.
For the first kind I use pen and paper. Pen and paper is better for learning things by heart and for this kind of knowledge there usually are plenty of textbooks to look it up if necessary.
For the second kind of knowledge it is usually enough to get the gist of it. That is why I write my notes on my computer. Here it is less important to know it by heart and more important to clearly record a reference for potential future use. Searching through a file directory is easier than trying to find a random piece of paper I might have thrown out.

Of course given the time, writing a draft on paper and then a final version on your computer is best. However who in academia has time to spare for that?


I used and still use pen and paper, although for my discipline, I bought engineering paper so that I put graphs on the left page and content on the right page. That is what I used for lectures and presentations. There are limitations on a digital format unless you turn it into a glorified writing pad. You cannot mark arrows easily, you cannot easily link text to graphs and you cannot write marginalia as easily, unless you are typing in LaTeX.

Outside of lecture, I use highlighters. Although I keep a digital copy of articles, you cannot markup a pdf from a publisher. I maintain four inch binders that are organized in a manner that is useful for me. I have my own Dewey system. Electronically, I store the articles using tags as names such as serial_correlation_explosive_roots or mvue_cauchy_trimmed_mean. I also depend a lot upon memory. The difficulty of using a markup system is that you do not know what will be important in three years.

When you read an article it may be that keywords a, b, and c were what was important to you, but the article contained a seemingly uninteresting reference to keyword d, which is not a keyword because you don't care at this point in time. The keywords do not hurt, but if they cause you to commit less to memory because you say "I can search it," then you actually have lost retrievable data. Of course in an ideal world you would have built a search using the contents of the pdfs.

Pre-built bibliographic tools exist. BibTex is very useful, though not ideal. For continuity I use BibTex though if I were starting today, I may not. I maintain a unified bibliography for everything I have ever used or done. BibTex is part of LaTeX. If you are going to do professional writing, you should probably learn LaTeX. Download something like MikTex and then use something like TexStudio as a wrapper so you do not have to type out all of the commands. It isn't bad to learn on MikTex, but it is slower than TexStudio since TexStudio will guess what you are trying to do and autocomplete.


The support is probably the least relevant part. What you actually need is a structure to organise your notes.

If it goes well digitally for you, go for it. At the end, it all depends on how you function. I know that if I need to learn something, I better write it on paper than on a machine, unless it's computer programming. But that might not work for you.

There are multiple tools to manage bibliography, with or without the ability to add notes. Just pick the one you like and can work with.

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