Research in AI is pretty intense these days; important new papers are coming out much faster than any one researcher can wrap their head around. The information deluge can't be ignored either- researchers have to be aware of the wider context their work is situated in, to avoid replicating existing work and to be able to present their own research in language that the community can relate to. Managing references is only part of the story, many other useful bits of information are encountered in blog posts, on Twitter, or in virtual/live conference talks. Beyond knowledge organization, research requires active planning and execution of projects, both solo as well as in collaborative settings. Finally, the endangered slivers of life outside research have to be managed efficiently as well.
Prior to Notion, I had been searching high and low for a good system. Notion provided the basis for my current setup, which feels stable enough to warrant a quick write-up. Obviously, setups are highly a matter of personal taste, but hopefully some of the ideas presented here will be useful to other researchers. The dark art of research management is mostly tacit knowledge: it isn't covered formally in academic education, and is typically cobbled together through grad-student descent, or, if fortunate, learned on the fly from colleagues.
Of course, all of the different pieces can be addressed by various systems, e.g., GitHub for code management, Paperpile for references, Google Docs for notes, Overleaf for writing papers, etc. But as observed by many (for example), a more natural organization method is under one integrated platform where all kinds of knowledge can be linked together in a more fluid, associative way:
“It’s not just knowledge you end up synthesizing. It’s inspiration.”
Two popular platforms at the cutting edge of this new wave of knowledge management tools are Roam Research and Notion. As the title implies, I'll be discussing Notion here. I haven't used Roam yet and am not privy to how it stacks up vs. Notion, but a main draw in using Notion was that it's got a great free plan for personal use, while Roam is still quite pricy.
There are great guides for getting started in Notion elsewhere, so I'll cut straight to my workflow.
Here I'll describe the main parts of my setup, but the best way to get acquainted is to check out the pages themselves by following the links. You can also clone my pages as a template to hack on them for your own purposes.
Most people set up a kind of home page that concentrates the most important links, tasks and information. My Dashboard looks something like this:
Something I really like about Notion is that it's highly modular and everything can be connected to everything. So, for example, if I encounter a new interesting paper while surfing the net, I can clip it using the Notion web clipper, and save it to my Knowledge Base. Then, depending on its priority and type, it can appear automatically on an appropriate reading list in the Dashboard, minimizing the overhead needed.
Unfortunately, Notion still doesn't include a pdf reading/annotation functionality, so an external reference manager will still be required. I use Mendeley, but try to keep most of my notes in Notion, where they are "alive" and can be linked with the rest of my research. For example, see Stolk2020 for a paper clipped from the web, which can then be linked to by the rest of my Notion pages, and show up in my reading list.
When linking to a page like above, a back-link from that page is generated automatically! This is a great feature that allows you to re-trace associations more easily, by establishing a two way link between pages.