Taking Notes for Research with Bianca Pereira

Bianca Pereira joins me to talk about taking notes for academic research as well as general knowledge creation. Bianca is a researcher, a software developer, a feminist by ideal, and an educator by passion, and she comes with a lot of experience in working with PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) and Tools for Thought.

Below is the transcript of our conversation.


NICOLE: Hey, everyone, I’m Nicole van der Hoeven, and on this channel, I like to talk about tech, travel and taking notes. My guest today ticks off a few of these boxes. Please welcome Bianca Pereira. (Portuguese) Good afternoon, Bianca, how are you?

BIANCA: (Portuguese) Good afternoon, Nicole, I’m doing well. (English) Thanks a lot for inviting. I’m really excited for our chat today. I really enjoyed chatting with you, and I want to see whoever is here with us today. So if I like to invite, if anyone wants to participate in our chat, maybe can just send us a message down there.

NICOLE: Yeah, leave a comment with questions that you want to ask Bianca or me, or both of us. But Bianca, (Portuguese) Could you introduce yourself, in English? (English) I practiced that so I needed to say it.

BIANCA: Oh, okay. That’s really good. Yeah, well, my name is Bianca Pereira. I’m a researcher and a knowledge management coach as well. So my focus, when you think about taking notes, managing papers, managing the literature, the source is really like, how can we do personal knowledge management for the purpose of research? So how can we create notes so that we can write research-driven outputs later on? Research-driven outputs can be like papers or they can be an essay or a blog post can be anything that is based on research. So it’s really like how can we do the whole process of personal knowledge management for the specific purpose of research? So that’s what I work on now. And I keep doing my own research as well in computer science, as we talked before.

NICOLE: Rodrigo said, “Good Portuguese.” (Portuguese) Thank you, Rodrigo. (English) I’m trying. I moved to Portugal. But maybe we should explain that connection, why I am randomly speaking to you in Portuguese. You’re from Brazil, right?

BIANCA: Yes, I’m from Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro. And I learned that Nicole, you’re speaking Portuguese because you’re also living in Portugal, right?

NICOLE: Yeah, of course, I have to learn that.

Research isn’t just for academics

NICOLE: I thought it was interesting when we were talking about this stream and I said, “I wanted to call it taking notes for academic research.” And you said, “Oh, well, it’s not just academic research.” You said that you wanted it to be broader, just research in general and also knowledge creation. Can you talk a bit more about the distinction between the two? ‘Cause when I think research, I automatically jump to academic research.

BIANCA: Yes. Yeah, many people, they’re like, “Oh, okay. Let’s write academic research.” I’m like, “No, please, no.” Because at least like from my perspective, I think research, it’s not just inside of academia. Everyone not only can do research, but many people do research in their jobs. Even like when you are going to create content, for example.

So for me, researcher is more than someone who went through a PhD or went through like formal academic research, but they’re all people who are using critical thinking for the purpose of creating new knowledge. For example, someone is in a company, the company is facing a problem and they need to solve a problem, which may be very specific to their company. So they need to do some research. They need to use some tools that we use for doing research to solve the problem to come up with innovation to solve something inside of the company.

So for me, from my perspective, that person is a researcher, even when it’s not an academic researcher, for example. So that’s why I like to think about research as the process of knowledge creation when you’re using critical thinking for that. So for me, I think like anyone and everyone could become a researcher or is already a researcher, even when they don’t call themselves researchers. So that’s why I was like, “Oh, let’s try to not…” Don’t say, “Oh, only who is in academia is a researcher, only who went through a PhD is a researcher.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think everyone can use the research for their work, sorry, in their daily lives.

NICOLE: That’s really cool. By that definition, I think I would classify as a researcher and I had never really thought of myself as one. It’s very meta, but I’m taking notes on this while we’re talking. And you said that one of the things that differentiates, I’m paraphrasing here. One of the things that differentiates research from like other forms of note taking is critical thinking. Do you also think that there is a sort of rigor that is applied? Like maybe when people think research, it means that you’re collating things from a lot of different sources? Or do you think that that is necessary for research?

BIANCA: I think, well, it depends on what you mean by rigor. If you’ve been on rigor, like, “Oh, more like in the academic sense, you need to write in a given way. You needs to like to have your argument very strong for lots of experiments.” I think there are multiple, it can be a little bit more lightweight let’s say, when I talk about research in general. But there is a level of rigor that is important, which is related to the critical thinking, which is really like, okay, and I’m just like, I just woke up in the morning and I thought about something. I say, “Ah, this is true, or this is the thing.” Because I think it is. I don’t think there is any rigor on that. It’s just like someone has their experience and they’re right about that.

But that’s not what I mean by research itself. It’s really like, try to create an argument. And it’s hard when I talk about argument, because when you think about argument, you think about two people fighting. That’s not what I mean by an argument. So an argument is really like, “I’m trying to justify why I believe on something.” Rather than just like, “I believe on something, this is the truth.” It’s like, “I believe on this and those are the reasons. This is the reasoning behind why I believe on that something.”

So this is the level of rigor that we need to have in any research. And sometimes to justify, we need to do full experiments and all those things. That’s when there’s really like professional research. We need to do experiments, we need to do like a lot of literature research to synthesize literature to justify why you believe on something. But it can be very simple, really like checking a few sources, checking from your experience as well, mixing those things to justify why you believe that something’s true of something is the case. So that is a level.

NICOLE: I like when you say that, when you specify that it’s an argument, but not between two people. And it kind of made me think about how when I write something and something that I’ve done research on, I like to use steel man arguments. And the idea, I mean you maybe know this, but just to explain to other people, there’s something called a straw man where sometimes in order to prove a point, people construct this very flimsy argument and then they show how it’s wrong. But I really love constructing a steel man which is a contradicting point of view that is actually valid in some ways. And that way, when you are able to convincingly show that that steel man is incorrect or inaccurate, then it kind of strengthens your own premise. And in that way, it’s like an argument not between two people, but kind of between conflicting ideas.

BIANCA: Yes, yes, yes.

NICOLE: I wanna shout out as well, there’s some people who are saying they use Obsidian for both academic and non-academic research. So Grisha is agreeing that it doesn’t matter if the purpose of the research is for academia. And even William who’s a retired academic, agrees with you about research as knowledge creation. And a note about another Brazilian talking about PKM and Obsidian. They’re a cybersecurity researcher.

BIANCA: Oh, that’s really cool.

Taking notes for topic research

NICOLE: There’s a question here from Jan.

Could taking notes help in topic research? Using Obsidian to write random notes. And I’m interested if I could somehow use it to get some ideas for my thesis engineering field.

This is a perfect question for you.

BIANCA: I would say you can have a whole system just to help your research. That’s the area that I like to talk about. So you can spend one hour, even more hours here just talking about that. But I suppose that you were saying to get idea, so it’s really the beginning of the process of research. So it’s really like, what do I research about? And I would say definitely, you can definitely use your notes for that. I don’t know.

You may agree with me, Nicole, that our research, our notes taking space, note making space is really to put our thoughts in there, to let our minds really flow into the page or in our case, to the digital page. So when it comes to identifying the top, the first thing that we actually need is like, what are our interests? What do we care about? What do you want to work on? What will be spending, if you are thinking about the research topic, what do you spend the next years work on? So it needs to be something that you have interested in learning more about. So I think our note making space is a perfect place to just like put things out. What are the things that I like? Let me write everything I know about them so that you can then decide, okay, which one I want to maybe pursue, so investigate a little bit more.

So I think that would be, and I would say, you ask, Jan, could you take notes? Could take notes help topic recency? Definitely. I think that would be one step that would definitely help in defining what is the topic for your research.

NICOLE: I didn’t actually plan on doing this, but I’m gonna share my screen because this is something I’ve thought about a lot as well. So I have this thing called lightning rods of thought. It’s actually from a D&D or an RPG person.

Sly Flourish is a YouTuber who has the idea of using lightning rods, which is adding things in a game that cause the players to use abilities that they already have. So it’s kind of like attracting what the abilities and interests that they already have. So I had this idea of lightning rods of thought. And this is how I try to find out what things I’m interested in. I mean, there are many ways, this is one.

So this is a Dataview query that I use and it says, it spits out all of the notes that I have by the number of outgoing links, and this is just the top 50. But I am trying to identify maps of content, for example, and it’s going by descending order on outgoing. And then there’s also incoming links. So you could look at it that way. How many notes do you have that are linking to certain notes? And it’s like, these are the things that I am interested in apparently. So it’s just useful for me to start here. This doesn’t mean that I stop here, of course. And I can also embed searches for different keywords. And sometimes, it’s useful to look at orphans, the things that have no links to them. And I’m not sure why. Maybe I should think about that. That’s just as an aside, I didn’t intend to show that, but I thought it was kind of relevant.

BIANCA: Yeah, I think this is really good. I do something similar, although I don’t have the queries anymore ‘cause I’m not actively using Obsidian, but I do a similar thing, which I call it generalizations. So you’re like, what are the things that are making everything else be glued to each other? Let’s say, what are the central topics that everything is linked to or who is linking to everything else? Usually take the ones that is everything links to that, those are the things that I have been working around them a lot. So those are the core for my system as well, so I’ll do something similar so that’s really nice.

NICOLE: Yeah, it sounds like the same thing. It’s like abstraction and finding the highest level of abstraction. And from there, you can start digging into it. So I guess to answer the question that Jan asked, yes, they could definitely help. Taking notes could help in topic research. And one way that you can try to find out what topics you’re interested in is by trying to find these clusters, like what Bianca said, the generalized, the most generalized topics that you tend to write notes around. There’s another question for you from Grisha.

Bianca, do you first take notes on paper and then put them in Obsidian?

BIANCA: No. I still love and in paper, I love it, but there is just no time. So for me everything is like, phone all the time or in the computer is direct and digital because there is just no time. Especially now with small kids, there’s just like not an option anymore.

NICOLE: I definitely get that it’s hard. I always have a real notebook and a fountain pen. But my usage of it has shifted to like journaling and brainstorming and not really like as you say, Bianca, sense making.

AI for research and note-taking

NICOLE: Nikhil asks, “If applicable, have you come up with a workflow regarding materials? PDFs, videos, etc. to use an Obsidian, ChatGPT or GPT3? I’m looking to use it for academic research.” Have you looked into that?

BIANCA: I use ChatGPT most for copy edit for editing. It’s really, really good. I was doing a try, I was okay if I want to do a literature review. A base one like a scoping review, which is like the very first type of, could I use that? I even published it on Twitter sometime ago and ChatGPT has some good things and some very bad things. Sometimes, it’s just retrieving information that is random. I know there are people who use for example to summarize the source. If you don’t want to read the whole source, you just want to know does it talk about it?

Some people use for that. I haven’t tried to use for that. I prefer to process my source in a different way. But those are, I think the best, best, best section on the writing process where it’s actually like, “Okay, I wrote it this way, can you edit a little bit and see if sounds a little bit better?” So I think for copy editing and ChatGPT is really good.

NICOLE: Yeah, I want to add that I also made a video on AI for PKM. I talk about things like using Napkin. Napkin is something that brings in your highlights from Readwise and auto and in a smart way uses GPT3 to tag those highlights. So since Nikhil was asking about different materials, like PDFs and videos, if Readwise processes those, then Napkin could see those and start to intelligently make links.

With Obsidian in particular, since he asked about that, there’s text generator and someone from Mastodon, Rick Raftis actually wrote this blog post that I found really interesting and it is about using Elicit and Consensus, which I don’t really know much about, but I thought that the blog post was interesting.

Obsidian Canvas vs. Scrintal

NICOLE: And so what else is there? (Reading a comment in Spanish)

Greetings from Chile. Últimamente he estado utilizando canva para hacer presentaciones para mis clases, de modo que cuando actualizo la nota citada en la presentación, se actualiza de inmediato visual

(English) Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t even highlight that. So just to translate here, for those who don’t speak Spanish. This person is saying Greetings from Chile and they’ve been using Canvas, which is an Obsidian feature to create presentations for their classes. And so that when one note that is cited in the presentation is changed, then that Canvas is automatically updated. That this is a really good use case for it. And maybe this is a good time to also talk about another alternative for Canvas, because Canvas is for Obsidian and in many ways, I think it’s Obsidian’s answer to Scrintal. What do you think about that?

BIANCA: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, just for who doesn’t know, I was a very passionate, obviously the user until I found Scrintal. Which kind of strange. I still love Obsidian, but I don’t use it anymore.

So Scrintal is an app where you can visually organize your notes. So Obsidian has Canva so you can decide to, let’s say just start with Canva, it’s more like organized in those stuff. It’s too easy to create new notes in Canva, but in Scrintal, everything is visual. So you always like to create a note and then the note appears a card already in the background from what you’re creating. So it’s really to visually organize the notes.

And it started before Obsidian and then Obsidian appear with confidence, like features, features, features. So there and there is now also Logseq, which appears now with whiteboard. I didn’t check yet, but people are saying that it’s actually also really good.

So yeah, I became a Scrintal user at some time ago. Mostly because I was using the phone and the phone at the time, Obsidian didn’t have the mobile app. And for me, one of the main challenge that I had is like, okay, I’m writing something and then I write too many notes and just like start linking and connect to the note. And I jumped another note, jumped to another note, jumped another note. And I always found it hard to remember where did I come from. I was like, “Where did I come from? Where was I working again before I jump into this note?” And Scrintal gave me that automatic note. As I’m creating the notes, the notes are in the background. As soon as I close it, i have all the other notes there. They’re in that same visual space, the same context, let’s say. So that’s what made me change.

I noticed at some point, I was using less Obsidian I was getting kind of stuck in my way of writing notes, in my way of thinking. And then Scrintal was kind of like accelerating, I was like, okay. And that’s when I did the change and it was before Canva, before the mobile app was released as well.

NICOLE: We have a question here from Mickael Fortunato.

By the way, Bianca, are you only relying on Scrintal?

BIANCA: Yeah, nowadays for idea management, yes. Now, I moved with everything into Scrintal now.

How important is visual thinking in PKM?

NICOLE: So let’s talk about this a little bit because I was also an early user of Scrintal. I think I talked to the team before it was released and gave my feedback. Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I actually really liked the visual part of it. I really, really liked it.

What I didn’t like about it was that it’s not plain text markdown files anymore. That view, I mean Canvas is the same. If you use Obsidian Canvas, that’s no longer a standard format, which is also why I hesitate to use it because I just really like plain text. But I do love the idea of adding, of bringing in visual thinking into note taking.

I think it’s very visceral because when we see a note or even like something that looks like a note on the screen, instinctively, we know how to use it because that is a metaphor for an actual piece of paper that we can interact with. What do you think about visual thinking? Do you think that it’s always necessary for research or is it just something, another avenue that might be useful?

BIANCA: I find it, personally, extremely important. And the main reason is when you talk about knowledge creation, we need to be able to get our ideas, to put ideas together. Sometimes a big number of ideas so that we can create something from them or take them and break them down.

So for example, I talk like about sense-making strategies, they’re usually like you put the ideas on a space which will be a board, let’s say. And how now we can connect them, create new things from them, generalize from them, see the context about them. In all those steps when you’re playing with ideas, then you can be creating new ideas. Because what I notice that sometimes, we just take notes about, let’s say, what you found, our source. we have quotes, quotes, quotes. But then what is the idea?

At the end, of the day we want to create knowledge. Where are our ideas? So even my whole note, note making is like each note is one idea, which some people they call the atomic notes, although I don’t know anymore because we have many discussions with people who take atomic notes and we have some disagreements. So basically like each node is an idea.

So when you take ideas and you put them into a board for example, they’ll start to organize them. Or where things that are similar, somehow they can be closer together. If they have another type of similarity, you can now add color to them. If you have available shapes, shapes can have meaning as well. So if all those things you can start rearranging the ideas, organizing, grouping them and seeing how can I find the relations between them and which new ideas come out just by putting those things together?

The visual organization of notes is very important for knowledge creation itself because then, you can see the ideas and reflect about them so they can create something from them. Which pure text usually is really hard to do with pure text. Or with just like 10 notes around the screen, but not in a visual organization.

NICOLE: So this is a related question from Jan:

When is creating a Canvas or something similar necessary? Is it not tedious to do every time?

BIANCA: Well, my take is that it’s important to see why you want to create that. Do you want that as a navigational board for example. If you want to have an overview of everything, your vaults for example. Can you have one board that gives you the entry point to all these spaces in your board, in your vault? That’s one.

Things that you can use for, or can use as a sense-making space, you can bring up some notes or cards that you want to make sense of or create something from that. But I would not say that it’s always necessary.

Sometimes, all we want is just like open a note and do a brain dump, for example. Don’t need a board for that. Or you just want to work on the content of one single note. Maybe explain a little bit more what their ideas about, so we don’t really need a board for that or Canvas for that.

So I think it depends a lot from what you want to do. What do you think, Nicole? What would be your use for Canva?

NICOLE: Yeah, I think, I don’t wanna say it’s necessary because I just hate imposing what I think on other people.

For me, some element of visualization is always necessary. Yeah. And sometimes, that is me drawing up like an atomic visual from the beginning and other times, I’m just all text and then I rearrange the text on Canvas or something or Excalidraw.

And then other times it’s all purely based on the relationships and I’m just visualizing those links in either the graph view or ExcaliBrain.

But I think our visual processing as humans is much more advanced than maybe other senses. Like common sense isn’t common, right? So it is something that we actively have to practice. And so having these visual shortcuts I think is really helpful.

So for me, it’s always necessary, but I don’t always go to the extreme for everything ‘cause yeah, that would be tedious in that case.

Note-taking in multiple languages

I want to jump into Scrintal because it’s been a while since I’ve last seen it, but I can’t resist this question from Deb Leg who says:

As someone who also juggles languages, I’m curious to know how your knowledge of several languages impacts your thoughts or notes process and which languages you use for research and knowledge creation?

BIANCA: That’s interesting. I just use English all the time. Because I figured I started my research journey even when I was in Brazil, everything was in English, all papers were in English and for computer science all technical language was in English, so everything was always English. So I decided to just have one language for my specific, I don’t even know how to call it more knowledge base vaults or anything, I like to call knowledge base.

But one thing that is interesting that I was discussing with one of the members of my community the other day is that ‘cause you’re saying, well, I write in English and in Japanese. And one of the things that we notice with languages is that there is translation and there is how can I actually express this idea in a different language? And sometimes, translation is not the way to doing that. Because I always say, “Well if you take notes, for example, if our notes represent an idea, the title of the note is the name for that. How do we call that idea?” And sometimes, how we call that idea in English is not just a translation from stock in Japanese or in Portuguese. It’s like how do we call that idea in one language and how do we call that idea into the other language?

So that’s one one of the interesting things because I think the main challenge now is really like if you write in two languages, when it’s time to search for your notes, which language would you use to search? So it’s really hard. It’s like, which word did I use? Did I translate? So one thing could be like, okay, I have a title in both languages, if that’s important idea, just have, how do I call that idea in two different languages. But it is really hard to find later if you’re not very disciplined on how we name our ideas or how we write.

NICOLE: For me, I can’t really control it all the time. I think my daily notes for instance, are in a jumble of languages, whatever I was thinking in at that time. So they are messy. But what I do is at the end of the day, I then process it and then I do translate most of it to English.

Some things are naturally in English for me. Like I study, so my native language is Tagalog, English is a second language and it is my best non-native language. It is also the language that I studied in. So when I talk about anything that is like mathematical or computer science related, because in programming, even the keywords are in English, so it makes sense for me to translate those into English.

But what I’ll do is I’ll have an alias in Obsidian with something that I might refer to it as in another language. So for example, performance testing is the main note for it in English. And I’ll put an alias that is “pruebas de carga” which is the same thing in Spanish because I might be searching for that.

And I also noticed that with people, the notes tend to be in whatever language I was speaking to them in. So if I’m speaking to someone in Dutch, then my notes will be in Dutch ‘cause that kind of makes sense.

Omar Ortiz Meraz is saying:

Usually, I reserve each language based on topic.

Yeah, I have a bunch of private notes around relationships and relationship dynamics that are in Tagalog because that’s how I think with relationships. And looks like Omar’s also saying English for technical things, yeah.

Filipino, Tagalog and English here too.

Hey, (Filipino) compatriot, how are you?

Demo of Scrintal

NICOLE: (English) Let’s get into Scrintal, Bianca, if you don’t mind showing us what it looks like now. It’s been a while. It’s been like months, maybe a year since I looked at it. Should I add it?

BIANCA: Yeah. Can you add? Can you see my cursor or?

NICOLE: Yes, we can.

BIANCA: Yeah, okay.

So Scrintal, the hard part is that you are faced with a blank screen and you’re like, okay, there is a world of possibilities but I have no idea how to start. So it’s really like you can just create a note, which is called card here in… I like to think like it’s similar to the physical world, let’s say. You have your desk, you can double click or create that to create a card where you can just write wherever you want and create a title. My idea.

And then they also have this slash comments to actually add things. A link to a card or a link to a board. You can link to from a card to a board. Upload things, emails, add YouTube videos, tweets, upload, and the normal formatting that we have.

And if I want to create a link to another idea, I could just here plus. And then there’s another idea. So let’s say they all just appear on the screen and if you just close everything, they are there in the board already linked to each other.

So basically that’s the basic idea of Scrintal. So you have cards, you can have a desk and you can have a board, which is exactly the same thing of a desk, but you can save a board and give a name to the board. The desk is just one, where boards, you can create as many as you want. So you can just click here. Or for example, if I want to create a board with those, I just right-click, create a board. And then I have this new board, which I can give it a name and add a link for example, inside. Inside of here. So this is a link becomes a link to board rather than linked to a card for example. And it has similarly like have backlinks. So it appears when you have links to boards. In which boards does this card appear? Because a card exists in the panel, the board. It can appear as in multiple boards, it can be no boards at all.

So that’s all those things appear there. And if you want to see the rest here, then you can see all the cards that you have, all the boards you can share, you can actually have multiple people work in the same board. The same set of cards. And here, you can have just a normal search that you can search to find the boards or the cards again. So the cards they exist independent of anything, you can add them to your desk, you can add them to a board. So I can go out here and here on my desk. For example, I clear my desk, my desk is empty. But then the board, you still have those two cards. So you can use a board as an MOC for example if you want. You can use a board to make sense of things and save. It’s pretty similar tool to combine that sense because you can also link Canva I think in Obsidian as well. So those are the main feature.

We can add color as well if you want. You can add tags. Yeah, those are the main things the Scrintal has at the moment.

NICOLE: So we have two questions here on what were also my objections. Rodrigo Alexandre Costa:

Scrintal’s cards or boards format is proprietary.

And a related one:

How can you export your notes from Scrintal?

BIANCA: Yeah, that’s one thing that I have been asking the team for many months, the exporting part. They are working now on a full export of all the cards. Currently, can export one by one in Markdown or by just all the PDF, but they’re working on a export all feature. So it should be here, I think in the next months.

In terms of proprietary, yeah, they just have their own format. They don’t share what’s the format, but then you can export in Markdown. So ideally, in the future you could have, let’s say you write your things in Obsidian, you upload into Scrintal, you change the things there, there download, put back into Obsidian. So you can ideally be able to use both for depending what he wants to do. But yeah, we are not there yet if anyone wants to use that way.

NICOLE: I wanna say that to be fair, Canvas is the same way. So the Obsidian team hasn’t quite figured it out either. That’s kind of why I’m hesitant to use it because it’s no longer Markdown. And technically though, the format is not proprietary, Rodrigo. I don’t know about Scrintal, but for Obsidian, it is in JSON. So it is a standard format, but it isn’t nice to work with. It isn’t really something that you can export to another app or something. I imagine that the Scrintal team are facing the same limitations.

BIANCA: Yeah, well to be fair with Obsidian as well, this is a very new area. Like just now, there is like Scrintal, Obsidian and Logseq pushing into that direction. So there are really not no open standards to deal with this type of data because even the different tools are trying to figure out what is it that you’re creating, what is it that we want to represent, how we can represent that information.

So I think it would be very good to like, if in let’s say five years time maybe, or hopefully before, there will be open standards for those and multiple apps who maybe even work together to try to create those open standards that they all support. So I say, fingers crossed, that will be the future. But yeah, so far, I’m not even sure if there is any open store that would cater for this type of use case. So let’s see where it will go.

NICOLE: I think the closest one would be Mermaid.js. which Obsidian does support, but you have to learn it. And it’s also not as flexible as Scrintal is for example. I want to ask about the board and desk concept though. It kind of sounds like their analogous to maybe folders and subfolders or is that completely wrong?

BIANCA: Well, first there is no subfolders. You cannot have a board inside of a board, for example, board is a separate thing. And they’re not totally, they are similar a folder in the sense of container. Like it can bring things inside of it, let’s say. You can put cards inside of a board, but the same card can’t exist in multiple boards. So they don’t have the limitations of a folder because in a folder, like you put on a folder and that’s it. You cannot really put in multiple, you can create shortcuts, but that’s another story. But then really like folders, is this folder or in that folder? Whereas boards is really like, okay, you can just put on a board, remove, put it back again, put in five different boards. So the boards are much more flexible in that sense.

Taking notes on source material

NICOLE: So there are a few questions about how you would actually use these boards for research. So for starters, someone said if you were taking or making notes from an article, would you make many atomic notes or one main note? And then my question is, would you also like create a single board for that article and have all of your notes on there? Or would you make a board per day? And then a follow up question is from Jan who is asking about the serendipity aspect of it. So what if you just want to be able to explore your notes and discover new ones?

BIANCA: Just try to remember everything. I remember this.

For the input one, as I said, like I work with idea note, let’s say, so each note is one idea. So when you’re reading a source, there are tons of ideas in the source that you want to capture and understand. And there are main ideas that spring out. Why are you reading the source? So I have like tons of notes that come out from reading one single source. So I have multiple notes from that. They all link back to the source, but I have multiple notes on that.

But in my case, I’m playing now with creating a board for that because someone asked me the same question, I’m like, “I don’t create a board for that.” So I was like, “I’ll try and see if there is any benefit of doing that.” I did not find any benefits so far, unless you want to make sense of all those ideas together. But then you can create a board later. But while I’m reading a paper, I don’t really use a board. I just like, there are many ideas that I start to, many notes, many cards that I start to create, create, create, create. But I don’t actually create a board for that specific input. I don’t see any specific utility unless I want to make sense of those ideas even in isolation from the source or get group of ideas or things like that. Yeah, so that’s that.

NICOLE: So Niky Dix seems to be familiar with your work. They say that you have a brilliant method for using a combination using OneNote and then making atomic notes. Can you explain what they mean?

BIANCA: Yeah, well Nik is from our community. Because there is a process. one thing is like for example, how I do it, I create many notes. And what I talk about this, I’m not sure if Niky is referring to that, is the idea when we have the bibliographic note where like I call the input note, it’s a note that represents the source itself.

So this my note that represents the source and I have all my ideas linking to that source. And the reason why I link to that note and not direct to the source then I am talking about is because then I can see, I can answer two questions. One is where this idea came from because it has a link to the source and the other is like, what are all the ideas that came out from this source? So just go into the note, the backlinks shows me all the ideas that are related to this source. So I think maybe that’s the what Nik’s talking about. Using the OneNote to represent the source.

So I don’t use a board to represent the source to say, ah, this is the source and all the ideas in the source. Instead, I have one note and all the notes that refer to that are linked back to that source. So the backlinks by now can take, what are all the ideas that came out from that source? I don’t know, Nik, is that what you’re referring to?

NICOLE: Another person is also asking, “So you have a base note for the source and connect all notes?” So if I understand what you’re saying, yes, you have a note that is for that source and then you either explicitly connect other notes that have, like, you create notes of ideas from that source and you either explicitly link them or rely on backlinks to connect them to the base note. Is that right?


On the usefulness of highlights

NICOLE: And is it like, do you use something Readwise to do that? Or do you just manually create a base note?

BIANCA: I manually create, and actually, I was teaching a few weeks ago and one of the outcomes was that many people say, “Okay, I’ll remove my Readwise subscription.” because I’m really like, the whole flow, I talk like, highlight is good, but use highlight as a way to say, this is my note. There are many shortcuts especially for research.

‘Cause in research, you want to create knowledge. So our note should not be just a highlight. It’s like how can we have our own understanding inside of our system? And Readwise sometimes like, okay, I highlighted this in Readwise I can just put later into my system. And what usually happens that when we take that approach, let’s say we highlight and see we process later, later never arrives. So we end up just like our notes are just highlights, but we never process our understanding of what are the ideas that came out from reading that, from try to understanding that So that was like, well maybe highlight is good for when you want to reread the source, but if it’s the process of understanding, really need to write down what is our understanding. And if we use a tool that just say highlight to see it later, later never arrives.

NICOLE: Yeah, I think that’s when the problem is when you treat something like Readwise or any read it later app as the end of the process, then that’s still a very superficial way of learning really. I kind of treat it as the beginning. And then I process it from there. Jan is saying:

Do you mean highlighting encourages resource hoarding rather than taking notes?

I definitely think it does. Do you agree?

BIANCA: Yeah, I agree. Like especially when it’s highlight only. If it’s highlight only, then I think that’s the worst of the worst. Because sometimes, okay, I highlight and then Readwise, you just create my notes. I just import from Readwise into my Obsidian for example, and I have my notes with my highlights. But then like, so what? Those are other people’s words, other people’s thoughts, something they try to communicate, but what did we understand for that? What do we try to do with that? I think it means a little bit in the personal knowledge management. So I totally agree with you.

The one-pass reading strategy

NICOLE: So Niky Dix is saying that he was referring to the one pass strategy where we use free writing from one source and then make idea notes using the pick a phrase and then create idea notes and reverse outline. Okay, we need to unpack this. Can you explain what he means?

BIANCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. As a solution to this process, the highlight and the process later and later never arrives.

So when it comes the time to write from our research, there are no notes. Because we didn’t actually process those highlights with our understanding and build the knowledge that we want to write about.

So what I develop is what I call the one pass reading strategy. So that is when you finish reading, you have all your notes ready. Even if you stop in the middle, you are ready, have all your notes ready for you. So the process where you go, I develop a process step by step how we can do that. And that’s where all those words come from. We are reading something, we feel the urge to highlight something was either interesting, relevant, or puzzling. We stop immediately rather than just highlight and keep moving on, we stop and then start making sense of that.

So it’s really like, let me free write and just write my understanding of what I just read. Even try to explain what the person tried to tell me or try to explain how does it relate to my work or anything that comes to mind really. So just really like free writing that.

And then when you talk about idea notes, many people use the thing of atomic notes, I say, or idea notes as like, okay, what are the ideas in the highlighting? And that’s why I say don’t do that. The highlight is someone else ideas. You want to extract the atomic notes from what you wrote from your free wrote. Because those are your ideas, even if they’re just an explanation of what the person said. So those are the ones that become the atomic notes. And then you may want to cite to mention, okay, these thoughts actually are not mine. They came when reading this quote from the source. So that I can say, this is not mine, it came from this source.

But then that’s where I use and some methods that I teach on how to create those idea notes. Those are the pick a phrase and the reverse outline methods. So those are some methods that to help convert a free writing into idea notes. So that’s a little bit of what Nik was referring to.

NICOLE: Okay. So what’s so interesting is that you’re using different terminology, but I’ve kind of arrived at the same conclusion, at the same process.

I think like Tiago Forte uses the term progressive summarization.

And since you’re a developer, I like to think of it as like continuous note taking in the sense of CI/CD processes. For those who don’t know, in tech, we are now emphasizing a more agile way to work where that is more iterative. So it’s not like in the first pass, you get everything down and you’re done and you move on. It’s like you do, it kind of sounds like what you’re describing, Bianca, where the initial pass is like freeform. You’re not really separating things out yet. You’re just getting through it and then you go back and iterate over it, and then you start creating idea notes that are now in your words, not in the author’s words. And then you keep like continually processing it from there. So I’m seeing kind of a lot of similarities.

Do you think that it is significantly different from other methodologies like Zettelkasten or progressive summarization?

BIANCA: I cannot say that I understand completely progressive summarization or the Zettelkasten. What I understand, progressive summarization is that you stop too much on the source side of things. It’s like you try to highlight and summarize, is it too much on what the other process try to say, and it takes too much time to arrive on you, let’s say.

Whereas my case, let’s say like as soon as you write something that is important, your thoughts should go down, your thoughts should go there immediately.

But I agree with you on the agile process, actually even the people in the community, they heard me talking about agile a little bit because even I call agile note making. Because like yeah, let’s I compare to I guess the waterfall. So there’s a lot of like computer science things going on.

NICOLE: Oh, that’s awesome. I love that.

BIANCA: Yeah, so-

NICOLE: I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts.

BIANCA: Yeah, so it’s really like the process of really iterative. It’s really like put your thoughts out. Because one of the big problems that people have in note making or in writing, especially in research, is that we try to organize first rather than create the things first or express our thoughts first.

So it happens in some note making tools. They force you to think about that because okay, where would I put this note even when I don’t know what I write inside of the note yet. Whereas I see more like, first you express what you want to say. I don’t even know what I’m gonna say, then just write it all down. And then the process of organizing those notes so that I can find them later.

And the atomic note is really a process of organization. We are trying to organize our ideas in a way that we can grow them, using some sense making strategies or we want to find them later. I see that that’s why like the process really like. Write everything down first, then you express yourself. Now let’s start to organize as a second step.

Nicole showing her process

NICOLE: So I want to show quickly this something that’s in the process of me going through and creating and synthesizing my thoughts on it. This is an example of highlights from Readwise. And as you say, this is really like, it’s all source, there’s none of my own thoughts in here, but it’s like a prompt for me. It’s the beginning and then I remember what I thought was interesting about it, and then I create another note but that is about still what the author is saying, but now it’s in my words.

So I like this thesis, an antithesis, antithesis and synthesis kind of structure. It’s the Hegelian dialect and I like that in the first one I talk about what are the main part points of the book? What is the author trying to say? But in my own words. And then I also think about similar ideas that other authors I know or have read, wrote about or said about the situation. Then antithesis is like, what are the things that are wrong or what are the weak points of that book? And then how can they come together?

So obviously, I’m not done with this one and it’s still in progress, but I just wanted to show how it can be done like in Obsidian as well. I guess in Scrintal, this would be… I’m interested that the process is really very similar. It’s just, okay, the tool is different, but we’re actually doing the same thing.

Which tool is best?

BIANCA: Yeah. This one, I like to say like, because most people they ask, “Okay, which tool should I be using? Should I then move to Scrintal?” I was like, “Wait, what do you want to do?” Because it’s more about which type of thinking we are trying to support and then which methods we can use to put that way of thinking to practice. And then what is the tool that I want to use?

So many people say they started with Obsidian, they say, “Well that’s not for me. I want something else.” And they go to Scrintal. Some people start Scrintal, they say, “That’s not for me. I want something else. They go into Obsidian.”

So it’s really like, what do you want to do with the tool? What method supports that? And then, okay, which tool will support me in applying that method? So I like to think more on the mindset, what I call the mindset, and then the methods. Then choose, what’s then the best tool for my use case or for this specific use case?

I think I can maybe share my personal screen. I was saying that I was, I didn’t want to…

NICOLE: Totally up to you. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but yeah, sure. But I really love what you’re saying about tools because people think like, “Oh, my channel’s about Obsidian so I must think that Obsidian is the best tool for everyone.” I don’t, I hate saying something is the best for everyone. I’m like the opposite of that. That is the opposite of inclusivity.

I always say try it out. a lot of these tools are free or have a free trial or a free tier. Use it all. And if that’s Notion or if that’s Evernote or Obsidian, like go for it. We all think in different ways. Why do we assume that one tool will placate all of us?

BIANCA: Exactly. I totally agree with that.

NICOLE: Yeah, if you’d like to share your screen, you can-

BIANCA: Yeah, I’ll try.

NICOLE: Just go ahead and do that.

Languages as thinking hats

NICOLE: And Nik was also saying:

Write first, organize later. Sounds like what Nicole did with her daily notes in multiple languages too.

Absolutely, that is exactly it. My daily note is kind of like Bianca’s one pass process, what is it called? One pass reading. And that’s because it’s just like a log. There are bullet points. I am not really thinking too much about what language I’m writing in, but then when they get processed, I mean, very few people are going to want to read a single article in multiple languages that might not coincide with their languages, right?

Mage Prometheus says:

Writing down your own words immediately helps identify where you don’t understand. I don’t like to read on if I don’t understand what I’ve just read.

Yeah, and I would also add to this, something I didn’t mention with the multiple languages question is I actually use my knowledge of multiple languages to test myself. And kind of like the question that was asked earlier about AI. One thing that I am actively using AI for is to provide me the opposing argument. Here’s what I think, tell me what’s wrong. And that is super cool because sometimes the AI, GPT3. or GPT4 says things and I’m like, I should have thought of that. That’s actually a pretty solid argument that has me rethinking how I should argue, how I should present my evidence.

And I do the same thing with languages because I find that for me at least, like certain languages are linked with certain attitudes. It’s kind of like the six hats, the thinking hats from Edward de Bono. That’s what languages are for me.

If I have a premise out there and I think I want to attack this logically, I might try English because that for me is the logical language. But if I want to think about like, well what does this mean in terms of people? I might do Filipino, Tagalog or Spanish. Then if it’s something that’s more like, about freedom or liberty, okay, let’s do the same thing in Dutch and let’s see what I come up with.

It’s actually interesting, the things that I come up with just from putting the same thoughts in two different languages. It’s like, why did I use that word in Dutch? But I didn’t use a direct translation in English. It’s like, okay, that’s kind of interesting.

BIANCA: Yeah, that’s why you see like it’s really about the idea itself, not the words. Because when you start to thinking what is the name for this idea? That’s where it’s like, oh, okay, what am I actually trying to say here? What’s the idea that I try to talk about? So I find that fascinating.

NICOLE: And also agglutinative languages like German, Dutch or even Esperanto, they just let you freeform, push two ideas together that maybe don’t belong. And I love that. We can’t just do that in other languages. So it’s super useful from that perspective. Just putting a name on a feeling or an idea is so powerful.

Sparking serendipity in research

NICOLE: I want to get to the question earlier about serendipity, ‘cause I think that’s really important. So we’ve talked about how you process something for research, you have a base note for the source, you create idea notes that you pull out in kind of like an atomic note process. And then in the base note are things that are just more free form, but still in your own words, if I understand correctly, or is that like a separate note?

BIANCA: I feel I can share now. I managed to share so.

NICOLE: Oh, okay, great, yeah.

BIANCA: Just look at it.


BIANCA: So that’s, for example, this will be what I call, it’s some people call biographic notes, literature note, it’s just an information, what it is, some videographic formation, what is the link. And for example, in here, I don’t have really anything. It’s just a summary. Very tiny one. ‘Cause i still write, see, I’m on page six. I read almost nothing from this book.

But then, those are the backlinks with the ideas that come out of it. There is sometimes information about the person or information about specific idea. And then I have some explanation here, which links to other things. So that’s really how I link. I explain the things and link back.

What I link, I link back to this note, so I can see here what are all the ideas that are related to it. So what I started doing, I started writing sometimes here just like free form, free writing. I just open here. There was something interesting, I just start writing here. And then I separated them as soon as I finished writing.

Before I started reading again, I separate them into their own notes or put into a note if already existed a note about that specific thing. And that’s how I go.

So I don’t keep my original free writing, I just like throw it away, except in some situations. Oh wow. Where it’s more like the decision but it’s more like I’m reporting, I’m writing a decision that I took or is more journaling, how I’m more about why am I moving my research in that direction? If it’s from a source, it cease to exist as one text. It’s actually existing multiple cards that’s breaking down into multiple cards about different ideas.

NICOLE: I gotta say, that makes me anxious just thinking about it. You delete it? I do the same thing, but I keep the original.

BIANCA: Yeah. I say, well if it makes you comfortable, keep it there. And maybe the daily note can come back the best. But for me, it’s just like… Because it’s still there, but it’s nothing in one single text. It’s in multiple place. Each idea is a different note.

NICOLE: So how would you stumble across? Like this note that you have, this sign or symbol. Is there any way that in Scrintal, you can stumble across that in a different context? Like not when you’re looking into this book?

BIANCA: Yes, and sometimes, it happens with me because when you’re creating idea notes, when I talk about ideas, ideas are not just things, for example, this the example here, I have let’s say sign or double articulation.

We could think them as things or concepts, but I can say maybe like signs that have, no something say, double articulation, for example. Let’s a statement. I’m saying that signs have this property. So in that case, I will say sign. And just by doing that, many times, I started writing and I just say, okay, I’ll explain this idea here.

This is a new idea from me. I don’t wanna talk about science or I don’t wanna talk about whatever the word articulation is. I want to talk about the relationship between them. And many times, when I’m doing that, I notice I may think that this doesn’t exist. I will write for the first time, but then as I’m writing I say, whoa, I have a note about that already. It happened many times. So when I start thinking about the relationships with between things, I start noticing, I have notes that I didn’t know that I had before, and they have text in them, they have already content in them. I was like, whoa, I’m really happy with my previous self for having created a note for me, let’s say.

But in terms of serendipity in general, I wouldn’t say that Scrintal is focus on serendipity. It’s not like Napkin. Napkin focuses on serendipity. You open a note and two other notes just appear beside it. And so the focus of is really serendipity. Obsidian, you still have some plug, let’s say, give me a random note that is that level of serendipity.

In Scrintal, is really up to you. It’s really like, just open my card and open a random card and start to read again. And what I find interesting is that’s very often, we take notes, but we don’t read them. I mean, we always go to read something else from the external word, but we don’t read what our previous self wrote, let’s say. Very often. So I think a little bit of serendipity comes just by going to our vaults or our systems and reading our notes again.

NICOLE: Yeah, there are a few ways that I like to do it. I think last week, I released a video just on Serendipity for Obsidian. But I think that the concepts are the same.

Although I do use Dice Roller for Obsidian to randomly select elements from tables or also notes. And you can say like, show me all the notes with this tag. Or you can do a bunch of different things with it.

So I like to use that, but I also like to do chronologically. Like that’s why I used daily notes. In every daily note, I have a link that says like, one year ago today, here’s the daily note. And then I see what I was looking at or what I created on that day. And sometimes, I find seasonal things, like if I’m working on something for Christmas, it’s like, hey, this time last year I was working on that too.

So that’s another way, by date, by topic, random or visualization, which I think Scrintal, I don’t know if Scrintal can, I guess it is good at letting you visualize different ideas, but is there a way to visualize all of the ideas? Like in all of the boards? I don’t really remember.

BIANCA: No. Not yet. I tried, not a very good idea. I tried to put all my notes into on board and not yet. It just like didn’t open, everything crashed. It was just like, okay, lowsy, and we stayed there. I hope that the team has some ideas for that so you can actually see everything. But at the moment, there is no such option.

How do we find the time to make notes?

NICOLE: So we’re already over time. So I just wanted to end on one question from random user:

How is there ever enough time to make notes on everything you’re interested in?

BIANCA: There is not enough time to make notes on everything you’re interested in, that would be the main answer. But I think for the notes that we can take, I think it’s worth taking the time to take and engage with them later on. So I feel that that would be my take.

NICOLE: That’s a really good answer. I totally agree, there’s never enough time. I relate so hard to this question because I want to take more notes on things than I actually have time to take notes on them. But just like anything else, prioritize.

You’re not gonna be graded on this. Maybe you are actually. But for most other things, if you’re just a personal researcher, you’re not going to be graded on the thoroughness with which you attacked every single main premise that the author says.

So feel free to pick the ones that are relevant to you for the work that you are doing. And I think that’s a much more sustainable way of doing things because you never have enough time.

Bianca, thank you so much for joining me. If people want to know more about you, as I’m sure they will, where would you suggest they go?

BIANCA: Well, as we are on YouTube. I’m starting my YouTube channel. I have some livestreams there, but I will start publishing more frequently. And can always comment there and start chatting through there. Otherwise, I’m also on Twitter. Much more active in Twitter. Can just DM me at any moment and we can chat from there.

NICOLE: Awesome. And I also have the links in the description below of this video on YouTube. You can see Bianca’s YouTube channel there, but also, I don’t know why you didn’t even mention it. But you also have now, it’s not a course anymore, it’s a community, right? It’s the Prolific Researcher Community. Can you just talk a little bit about that?

BIANCA: Yeah, the main idea that I changed from course to a community is that many times we take a course and we say, “Wow, I learned a lot.” But then it comes a moment to put everything to practice. And I was like, “Okay, I’m stuck, so how can I get help?”

So the idea of the community that you, you come, you have an onboarding course where you learn how to take notes, how to express your thoughts, how to create a idea notes. And then, later in the second follow up course that you can take immediately or a little bit later. Because when you come to the community, come for a few months. Now that I have my notes, how can I create new ideas from those notes and use and write my output base on my notes.

So there are the course, the onboarding course and the follow up course, and there are a few others coming up, but there is also events or co-working sessions, Q&As, hot seat coaching, many other things.

It’s like, okay, you heard from me, now it’s time to develop your own practice. So then as you develop your own practice, then you get feedback, then you get support from me and from the community. And that’s why I change from a course into more community model because I think the one important aspect, okay, it needs to be something that works for you. That’s why I say it needs to be for each person. And we are there to support each one to decide which tool I want to use, how do I want to implement that? What works for my specific case and what doesn’t work for my specific case?

So that’s the idea of the prolific researcher community. And we have also course about research skills specifically. They’re related to the process of idea management or note making, but we have other things related to research specifically as well.

NICOLE: All right. Thank you, Bianca. I’m so happy to finally have you on my channel. We’ve been talking about it for a while. You’re welcome back anytime.

BIANCA: Thanks a lot for invitation. I I really enjoyed talking to you and thanks for everyone also who join us today. And I hope to be back and I hope to have you my channel at some point as well.

NICOLE: Yeah, absolutely. I’m game, just tell me when and where.

For everybody else, thank you for sticking around. Later this Friday, I’m having another livestream. This time, we’re going to be talking about something less serious than the topic of today’s discussion ‘cause we’re talking about all play, we are talking about role playing games. And I am going to be with my friend and dungeon master, Andy Polaine. We’re going be comparing how he takes notes and how I take notes on the same sessions, on the same campaign. So that should be interesting as well. Thank you, everyone for joining us and I’ll see you on Friday. Bye.

BIANCA: Bye-Bye.

See Also