Using the power of notes: PowerNotes

PowerNotes Is indeed a great way to organise your notes.
PowerNotes Is indeed a great way to organise your notes.

Initially, I had attempted to do a cursory review of the notes taking application meant for the browser (PowerNotes), but I decided to delve deeper.

First the problem statement: Is the screen reading making us stupid? Why would you prefer to read the blogpost on the screen? It stems from my fundamental shift to reading on the screen. I moved away from the textbooks and missed making those margin notes! I still have my reference texts heavily underlined, which helped me to skim through before the exams. In some ways, it helped me to retain information better.

I have been looking at that kind of a solution for long, and I am glad I have found an excellent service to boot- PowerNotes.

Let me expand the problem issue more:

Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle, and that, says author Nicholas Carr, is what you’re doing every time you use the Internet.

Carr is the author of the Atlantic article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? which he has expanded into a book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr believes that the Internet is a medium based on interruption — and it’s changing the way people read and process information. We’ve come to associate the acquisition of wisdom with in-depth reading and solitary concentration, and he says there’s not much of that to be found online.

I had stumbled on this issue earlier on-2010 to be precise. I haven’t read Carr’s book, but I am tempted to. The argument assumes more significance because of the profusion of social media. We are generating more content by hundreds of orders of magnitude without anyone being able to consume anything of it. It wouldn’t be meaningful. We call this as information overload.

How to get filters on this overload is a blog post for some other time, and I am glad I have found it. One of the significant spin-off benefits, of course, is to see everything from a fresh perspective.

How do you consume the digital profusion of content, then? For me, my browser remains the central point of “acquisition of knowledge”. I devour content to gain an idea with a lower level of attention span because I usually move back and forth between the browser and some other applications.

Here’s another study (linked from the blog on PowerNotes):

Electronic screens on laptop and tablet computers are being used for reading text, often while multitasking. Two experimental studies with college students explored the effect of medium and opportunities to multitask on reading (Study 1) and report writing (Study 2). In Study 1, participants (N = 120) read an easy and challenging passage on paper, a laptop, or a tablet, during either multitasking or not multitasking. Neither multitasking nor medium impacted reading comprehension, but those who multitasked took longer to read both passages, indicating loss of efficiency with multitasking. In Study 2, participants (N = 67) were asked to synthesize source material in multiple texts to write a one-page evidence-based report. Participants read the source texts either on (1) paper, (2) computer screen without Internet or printer access, or (3) computer screen with Internet and printer access (called the “real-world” condition). There were no differences in report quality or efficiency between those whose source materials were paper or computer. However, global report quality was significantly better when participants read source texts on a computer screen without Internet or printer access, compared with when they had Internet and printer access. Active use of paper for note-taking greatly reduced the negative impact of the Internet and printer access in the real-world condition.

Please do read it in its entirety. TL;DR- Screen reading is nearly equivalent to paper reading provided you keep your attention spans intact.

The easiest way, of course, is to either limit the screen time (though emails or social media) or mute notifications altogether. Screen time, for me, refers mostly to the laptop. (Despite the hype about the “new” iPadOS, it is still a shitty implementation- as usually, it is).

There are, of course, caveats to the study above- it depends on the type of “screen”, verbal reasoning and host of other quantitative factors (that are included for learning assessment) which makes it imperative to take conclusion in the right earnest.

Here’s another study (I am quoting the abstract, but the critique is not about the research methodology). I am merely cherry-picking to fulfil my confirmation biases 🙂

Fifty-three Grade 5 students were recruited from two classes of an elementary school in Taoyuan County, Taiwan. One class was randomly designated the experimental group used the proposed CRAS-RAIDS support for collaborative reading. The other class was designated the control group and used the traditional paper-based reading annotation method and face-to-face discussions. The two groups were then compared in terms of reading attitude, reading comprehension, and use of reading strategy in an active reading context. Analytical results show that the experimental group significantly outperformed the control group in direct and explicit comprehension, inferential comprehension performance, and use of reading strategy. Moreover, the experimental group, but not the control group, had a significantly improved reading attitude in the total dimensions and in the behavioral and affective sub-dimensions. Additionally, the experimental group showed positive interest and high learning satisfaction.

Therefore the blog post on PowerNotes explains this crucial “why”:

Every time the reader is taken away from the source, whether to follow a link, check their phone, or copy material for later use, they break their reading focus. Upon returning to the source material, the reader needs to reorient themselves to recapture the context necessary to understand the entirety of what the author means to convey, something novice and even expert readers find difficult in the screen environment. (Emphasis mine).

Therefore, I had been looking to merge the browser and note-taking application in one seamless workflow. PowerNotes is meant for long-form, and any aspiring academic should look at this available option.

It is annoying to copy and paste in the browser (like a note-pad) that doesn’t capture the links. Many note-taking applications are meant for grocery shopping and not for academics. It isn’t surprising that they show “picking up celery” for dinner. It simply doesn’t gel in with my workflows.

I faced this issue when I wrote in for an online publication (ET Prime). It wasn’t supposed to be a “peer-review” publication, but I need to get a grip on what’s important to highlight in the article on preventive healthcare in India. I am sharing some screenshots from the project.

Breaking up the project into topics.
Breaking up the project into topics.

If you notice carefully, I have broken up the project into specific topics that I need to research and form the whole article. It requires preliminary planning- you can either create a mind map or write down the various heads under which the item would pan out. Unlike the journal submission, I didn’t require the citations- except the links, of course, to back up my statements.

The text that has been copied comes in as a note which is taken in the background without distracting the user.
The text that has been copied comes in as a note which is taken in the background without distracting the user.

This service works well after I have installed the browser extension (available for Firefox and Chrome variants). After logging in, the browser extension can be clicked on from the bottom right.

The powernotes button in the bottom right.
The powernotes button in the bottom right.

A new project can be assigned at the outset or while researching. Your workflow will depend on your flexibility. I usually prefer to create the topical heads so that it saves me time. Of course, the highlighted notes are only the goalposts. It is not meant as a replacement or a “copy-paste” project. A single project is available free of cost, but you can have multiple projects after you have paid up. It is a limitation with the free account- I am facing some issues with the payment processor on their website. (Edit: I was apprised that the payment processor blocked payments from India because users had tried to plug in fake card numbers (sheesh!)

The project outline takes me to the website where I can create “sub-projects” (there is no limit to them).

Once I highlight the text in the browser, PowerNotes pops up in the area of the highlighted text. I assign the copied text under the required head and proceed with the reading of the text.

You can refer to other areas of research accordingly.

Once your screen reading is done, the beauty of the PowerNotes is that you can export out the resources in Docx format (that opens up in a word processor) and “ris” format that works in your bibliography manager. It is as simple.

Exporting out the project
Exporting out the project

There’s some serious science behind it as well behind this workflow:

PowerNotes employs a patent-pending process called Progressive Organization to build organization directly into the fabric of inquiry and research processes. Progressive Organization eliminates many of the problems introduced by digital research and allows users to easily organize and reorganize content to put themselves in the best position to write. Educators have also taken advantage of the Progressive Organization framework to achieve their pedagogical goals.

This is just a demo of another project I intend to work on- however, notice that powernotes pops up on highlighting the text
This is just a demo of another project I intend to work on- however, notice that powernotes pops up on highlighting the text

I can testify to the fact that it allows me to speed up my reading (or research).

I have been looking out for many alternatives, but I couldn’t find something as scientific as this one. I reiterate that this is my permanent workflow- and is better than plain vanilla notes on the Vivaldi Browser. Interestingly, no other browser offers built-in notes. I think Firefox had some experimental feature turned on, but you cannot sync those notes. It is a significant restriction. PowerNotes is still in beta phase.

I don’t remember how I stumbled on this service- I think I just got lucky. In the free tier, they offer a single project with no restrictions, though, with the subscription, your options open up to create multiple projects.

For me, it fulfils two significant requirements-

1) No distraction.

2) Ability to export out my notes.

I also agree with their assertion:

At PowerNotes, we’ve used the findings from these studies to create a screen environment that allows researchers to maintain focus and engage in in-depth reading. By combining cognitive science and user-supportive design, PowerNotes improves comprehension, retention, and critical thinking – unlike other annotation tools, citation managers, or web clippers (such as OneNote, EverNote, Zotero, etc.).

My further workflow involves exporting out the documents (with the notes) and open them up in the split-screen mode on Scrivener. By having these notes, I can easily overcome the writer’s block too.

I am also aware of other note-taking apps like “BearApp”. However, some of the reviews on social media websites mentioned that it is clunky, especially with the browser extensions. Even if I am highlighting text, the app tends to take focus which defeats the purpose of using the note-taking application. The other downside is that it ends up saving in its proprietary format. I installed it briefly and then deleted it. The basic application isn’t limited, but they also offer an inexpensive “pro-subscription”.

I highly recommend using PowerNotes. As they mention, splitting up project into categories helps in the “mental anchor” while the automatic citations leaves a research trail.

I hope that they add citation manager like Mendely or Zotero (or have some method to sync with these services). You can highlight the PDF texts as well though I am not sure if you can import your Pdf library as yet. The annotations in PDF works on those attachments that open up in the browser window. It is pretty neat option.

It is an ongoing project, and I am exploring other digital solutions. For any software, there is no “holy-grail” or one-and-only solution. It requires constant tinkering and submission of the feedback to the developers. Your requests may be addressed, or if there is a compelling alternative, you are free to migrate. My primary consideration is the value for money or “return on investment”, and I consider the efficiency gains as my priority.