Zettelkasten Forum

PhD Student thinking about organizing her literature review via zettels...thoughts?

Hi All,
I am in the first week of my year of conducting literature reviews on creativity, spirituality, personal agency, and organizational transformation! Woot!!! Very exciting!

My professor has shared many cool worksheets and spreadsheets for organizing literature notes for use in my lit reviews. (Thank you, amazing professor!!) However, as I was going through the examples, I found myself thinking, "hey, couldn't I just do this via zettels?"

Here's my thinking: Each worksheet or spreadsheet uses a one-line per article approach. For each article, the worksheet provides space to capture the following:

  • Authors (year)
  • Relevant Literature & Theory (Major Points, Topics, Ideas, and Who was referenced?)
  • Purpose of the study
  • Overview of Study Design (Method, Variables/Key Concepts, Sample - who was studied and how were they selected, Means of Data Collection?)
  • Major Finding(s)
  • Conclusions, Implications, & Limitations

Now, here's how I currently structure my zettels:

  • I include the citation in the title
  • I include a "too long, don't read" summary at the top
  • I write a more expansive entry
  • I include my own tags for cross-referencing
  • I include related card links
  • I include the actual reference

In theory, it should be pretty easy to establish a new template where the top part becomes spots for those worksheet areas. The bottom part would largely remain the same, only the tags would allow me to include things like

  • Which lit review this is for (creativity & spirituality, agency & organizational transformation, or if it speaks to both)
  • Findings tags and research method tags (e.g., #creativity-spirituality; #quantitative #survey)
  • My own brilliant insights and connections
  • Et cetera.

My questions for this community are:
1. Have you ever done something for your own literature reviews? How did it work? What tips or advice would you have for me?
2. If you have been the committee member overseeing a student's literature review, how would you feel about the student using a zettelkasten for organizing their research notes and thoughts? Would it cause you problems? Would you prefer that zettels be translated into worksheets when the student and committee member are working together? What tips or advice would you have for me?

Thanks in advance for your help with this one!


  • I have done lit reviews for various projects -- my PhD and a research proposal, for example -- and I always used a bibliographic manager for this. In my case, I used Bookends, a Mac application, but there are many others. Part of my reason for using a bibliographic manager is that it makes it easy to insert citations and compile bibliographies at a later stage. I wouldn't dream of using a spreadsheet for such a task.

    As to zettels, there is no reason why you shouldn't use them, but if you are planning to compile a bibliography at some point, you will be doing a lot of extra work. Inserting the citations and bibliography into my thesis took about two minutes while I was sitting in the foyer of my university building, just before I submitted the pdf.

  • I agree with @MartinBB that linking each source note to an entry in your reference management software is a best practice these days.

    Also, anyone who is using Obsidian can use the Dataview plugin to automatically generate reports about the data in literature review fields. I'm not sure how one would do this in The Archive: perhaps others could provide tips about that.

  • edited August 2022

    I started dabbling with Obsidian some months ago, and I was rather taken aback at how quickly it took over my life. There is not much I do now that does not involve Obsidian in some way. It will be overkill for some people, but I find it very useful.

    The other component in my academic work has been DEVONthink. Worth investigating for those who collect a lot of research material. Blisteringly fast text search. And it integrates well with Bookends, which I find useful. It can be used with The Archive or Obsidian, too.

  • Do you mean a literature review for your own personal needs or something that you'd use to publish a proper review for the science community?

    I am a Zettler

  • I can’t speak in the academic context but I do something similar for each book I read, where I have Book Title, Citation, Author Name, About the Author, Authors Goal with the Book, My Goal in Reading the Book, Sometimes the Table of Contents, then finally all my notes on the book at the bottom.

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