How I keep track of what I’ve read

To be a scientist, you need to read a lot. Not just field relevant work, but other topics you need to be familiar with in order to conduct research like statistics, philosophy of science, etc. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you need to have a system of storing what you’ve read. I’ve wasted hours in the past trying to remember the title of an interesting paper, hopelessly searching through databases trying to guess what it is. I’ve also forgotten the content of many articles I’ve read, rendering the whole exercise pointless. So I need a system to not only store the papers I’ve come across, but also the key points.

My way of solving this problem is simple: everything I read I put into my spreadsheet.

I’d be lost without this.

I have the authors in the first column, hyperlink in the second, and a summary of the key points last. Different topics are on different pages e.g. “Educational Psychology”, “Statistics”, and so on. I have ordered the individual papers alphabetically by author. Writing the summary means I am far more likely to remember and understand the content as I have to strip it down to its core and write succinctly[note]I don’t always succeed, as my summary of the McShane et al. article takes up almost the whole screen, but most of them are much shorter.[/note]. Anecdotally, I’ve found the act of writing something down greatly improves my memory of it. Research by Bodner & Macleod (2016) and Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) corroborates my experience[note]Though Eskritt & Ma (2014) found a negative effect of note-taking when remembering playing card positions.[/note].

This is obviously not a novel or groundbreaking idea but I’ve found it a very useful memory method. If your memory is good enough that you don’t need this sort of thing, all power to you[note]I’m very jealous.[/note] but for us mere mortals, it (or something similar) might be of use.


Bodner, G.E. & MacLeod, C.M. (2016) The Benefits of Studying by Production . . . and of Studying Production: Introduction to the Special Issue on the Production Effect in Memory. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology,

Eskritt, M. & Ma, S. (2014). Intentional forgetting: Note-taking as a naturalistic example. Memory & Cognition, 42, 237–246. DOI 10.3758/s13421-013-0362-1

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25 (6), 1159 – 1168

2 responses to “How I keep track of what I’ve read”

  1. I have seen others recommend Excel, but how about using a reference manager like Zotero? You can add notes there.


    1. I’m 99% sure using something like Zotero would be more effective haha. But I’ve never used them and the initial suggestion for tracking what I read was with Excel. Now I’ve committed to it and it seems a lot of effort to swap over.


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