Reading, Noting, & Synthesizing Sources

Note that you should also read/review the concept of synthesis on the page, Reading & Writing to Synthesize, which includes a fuller definition of synthesis, useful videos, and more information on Idea Matrix and They Say/I Say approaches, both of which help you synthesize ideas.

Reading Sources

When you read journal articles that you’ve decided will answer your research question and/or provide evidence to support your working the thesis, you don’t need to read every article in full as you start. It’s unlikely that every part of every article will relate to your research focus. Instead, modify your reading, and read the abstract, discussion and/or conclusion, and specific parts of the article that relate to your own focused research question or working thesis. At this point, you’re scanning for particular information and reading certain sections more fully. Based on your modified reading, you can decide if you need to read the whole article fully (e.g., to understand the author’s conclusions, progression of logical argument, and/or research process).

The following video provides a brief introduction to the parts of a journal article to read first.

The video below applies the process of reading a journal article to a specific example, to highlight the process.

Taking Notes on your Sources

Taking notes on researched sources involves more than annotating, paraphrasing, summarizing, and using other note-taking strategies that are discussed in this text’s section on Reading a Text. It also involves noting the publication’s information, as well as noting whether you’ve quoted, paraphrased, or summarized each piece of information. Because research writing means that you’re juggling a lot of pieces of information—your own ideas included!—this is another place in which visual cues and graphic organizers are useful.

Initial Stage: Organizing Notes Source by Source

You most likely will take notes on one source at a time. When you take notes for research writing purposes, always make sure to put the whole citation for the source at the start, before the notes for that source. If the article has a link to the citation, or a citation already created within the article, simply copy and paste the citation. If not, then make sure to note the following information, which you can also download and use as a Source Information Checklist.

  • article or chapter title
  • publication title (journal, book, newspaper title)
  • author/s
  • date of publication
  • date online material was accessed
  • publisher and place of publication for books
  • editor if there is one
  • page number range for the whole article or chapter

Then, as you take notes from this source, indicate by each note whether you’re quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing, or noting your own thoughts or questions. For quotes, use a “Q” or simply use quotation marks, and make very sure that you reproduce the original text’s exact words and punctuation. Use a “P” for paraphrases, an “S” for summaries, and a “Mine” for your own ideas, or any other shorthand system that makes sense to you. For different sources, you may want to take notes in different colored text. However you take notes, make sure that you house all information from one source together, so that you can clearly identify which bit of information comes from which source. Also, make sure to record the exact page number of each piece of piece of information you note, so that you have accurate information for in-text citations.

The video below summarizes and provides an example of how to take research notes.


Link to this video, which shows one student’s experience organizing notes source by source: See It In Practice: Note-Taking

Second Stage: Synthesizing Notes from Many Sources

Once you’ve read your sources as appropriate, and have your notes that answer your research question and provide evidence to support your working thesis, you need to move toward synthesizing or blending information from those notes into a coherent draft. Sometimes, this is more difficult than it seems—what piece of information should go where? It’s tempting to reproduce what you just did and use your notes source by source, simply inserting your quotations, paraphrases, and summaries from each source in order to draft your essay. However, offering information source by source will not result in a coherent essay. Instead, realize that taking notes source by source is a precursor to synthesizing your notes and re-ordering them by idea.

In order to get to the point at which you can develop a draft by ideas, you need to:

  1. understand the concept of synthesis, which is the way you link ideas, and
  2. learn about and apply one more graphic organizer, an idea matrix.

The following video discusses synthesis fully, and offers an example of an idea matrix (research matrix), starting at approximately 3:47. Make sure that you understand how this graphic organizer works—it’s a really useful method of synthesizing notes from many sources.

Another way of synthesizing notes from many sources is to use an idea matrix graphic organizer as you take notes. Do this as a precursor to doing your own idea matrix for writing with topic sentence assertions, your own supporting details and insights, and your notes from sources. Doing two idea matrices, one for note-taking and one for writing, is one way to help organize a lot of information, especially for more complex research writing.

Research Question/Working Thesis:  What are the physical and psychological benefits of regular exercise?

Ideas from sources, put into groups Source 1: article from Journal of the American Medical Association + citation
Source 2: article from PLOS Medicine + citation
Source 3: article from website of the Mayo Clinic + citation
Source 4: article from the website of the CDC, Centers of Disease Control + citation
strengthens bones & muscles summary & page number summary & paragraph number
improves brain health; lessens anxiety in adults quotation & page number paraphrase & paragraph number
improves sleep summary & quotation & page numbers paraphrase & page number
lose weight, maintain weight loss quotation & paragraph number
helps manage health problems (diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure) summary & page number summary & page number summary & page number
improves memory paraphrase & page number summary & paragraph number