Reviewing literature with Circus Ponies Notebooks: not just a fluffy, pink pony

When I first had Circus Ponies Notebooks recommended to me on an online forum, the name gave me associations to a note book for fourteen year olds girls filled with pink little ponies. Thankfully, I decided to have a look and discovered a wonderful app which I now use on a daily basis for my work.

CPN is a virtual notebook. It comes with a range of features such as tabs, writing pages, outline pages, sticky notes, sticky flags, the ability to record voice annotations, insert media clips and pdf files, quite a bit more, so it’s a very versatile tool. In this post, however, I want to focus on how I use it for note taking for my literature reviews. Having used Microsoft Word a lot in the past, I was looking for a more dynamic option that would allow me to have more things ‘in one place’ and to have my notes better connected than just a folder structure. CPN is now my primary tool for literature review notes.

CPN allows you to have several notebooks, and one of mine is simply called ‘Review’. Within that book, I have two kinds of pages: Divider Pages and Writing Pages.

Divider Pages help you divide your notebook into chunks, and come with a tab (which you can remove or rename as you wish). I use the divider pages to define the key thematic areas for my review, which are sub divided into two categories: review by source and review by topic.

Review by source means that the writing pages organised so that each publication has a separate entry, and the pages are listed by author name in the contents list.

Review by topic means that the writing pages are organised according to keywords or topics. So, for example, in my section on ‘Assessment for Learning – by topic’, I have one writing page dedicated to ‘definitions’, one to ‘impediments to reform’, one on ‘assessment criteria’, and so on.

Here is a screen shot:

Screen shot of the Contents Page of my ‘Review’ notebook

This is the Contents page of my ‘Review’ notebook. You can expand and collapse the Divider Page headings as you see fit, and it this screenshot the ‘AfL by topic’ is collapsed (although you can see the pages belonging to that section in the contents card to the left), and the ‘AfL by source’ is expanded. To go to the page you want, you click on the blue dot to the left of the writing page headings.

To the right of the notebook, you will see the different tabs (a bit difficult to see in this screen shot because I have so many), and to the far right, you will see the colour palette.

Writing Pages are, as the name suggests, for writing. This is in contrast to Notes Pages, which I won’t be talking much about here – but notes pages are your choice for outlining, inserting media, arranging different text boxes around on a page, and so on. All types of pages in CPN can be easily rearranged by dragging them up or down on the contents page.

When I review literature by source, I create a new writing page with the name of author, year of publication and (part of) the title as a heading. I then create a link to the relevant pdf file in the writing page, by quickly locating the file in finder using Alfred, and then dragging the file over to the notebook page. You can add a pdf file for annotation, or just as a link. I just add the link. And from there, I just continue adding other information and notes as appropriate, using colour coding and the highlight function to emphasise text. In the end, it looks something like this:

Screen shot of a writing page, with a link to the pdf file.

Another thing I like to do is to create links between pages. You can create two kinds of links, one to web pages, and one to other pages in your notebook. I find the latter particularly helpful for my ‘review by topic’ sections; in those pages I will usually link to the relevant ‘review by source’ page when I refer to particular authors. For example, in my ‘impediments to reform’ topic page, I have a bullet list of different factors that are known to constrain assessment reform, and beneath each bullet point I have a list of authors who address the topic in the bullet point, with a link to their individual pages.

Another thing I really like about this app is that it comes with an iPad version, which I keep synced through Dropbox using MacDropAny. This means that all my review notes are readily available when my iPad is with me.

Finally, I like the multidex feature. This helps you find stuff when you’re not sure where it went, and lists your information by a range of indexes, such as web links, attachment, stickers, numbers, or, simply, by words. Here’s an example of the word index:

Screen shot of multidex feature, by word

This is just a limited glance of what CPN can do for you, it has a range of features that I haven’t really gone into here, but at the moment I am happy with this particular work flow for reviewing literature. It’s very convenient to be able to flick back and forth between different topics and authors when I’m writing my an article, it’s easy to ‘connect the dots’ in terms of grouping sources and linking material to each other, the interface is pretty user friendly, and CPN customer support is quite responsive. I also have dedicated notebooks for ‘theory’ and ‘method’, as well as a more general notebook which I use for meeting notes, conference preparations, and so on. I recommend checking out this app, if you haven’t already.

Related posts on this blog:

Academic note taking: Evernote versus Circus Ponies Notebooks

Circus Ponies Notebook Part II: the iPad version

Circus Ponies Notebook Part III: Organising review notes with Notes Pages

If you want more information about how to use CPN for academic purposes, check out this informative blog post from Organizing Creativity.

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16 Responses to Reviewing literature with Circus Ponies Notebooks: not just a fluffy, pink pony

  1. Pingback: Hand writing on the iPad: Note taking with Notability | Macademise

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  3. Dellu says:

    You have brilliant articles. I like them all. But, a question:
    how do you develop your workflow between Scrivener, Papers, Sente, the iPad apps and Ponies Notebook? it seems that you are using a dozen of tools to do your task and somehow confusing to develop a smooth workflow.

    • macademise says:

      Thanks, Dellu! I’m going to check out your blog as well – I’m still suck in a Windows environment at work (although I often use my mac in my office) and it looks like you have some very helpful stuff on there.
      Your question was so useful that I decided to make a separate blog post on it to give the answer the space that it needs. I’m writing it up at the moment and should have it published at some point during the weekend!

    • macademise says:

      OK, my response is posted here.

  4. Pingback: Academic workflows: when to use what, and how | Macademise

  5. Pingback: Circus Ponies Notebooks part II: the iPad version | Macademise

  6. Pingback: Academic note taking: Circus Ponies Notebooks versus Evernote | Macademise

    • macademise says:

      Thanks, Math! Those are good links. That blog was one of the reasons why I really got into using CPN for academic work. CPN is changing status in my work flow now, though, from being a ‘hub’ (where everything ends up) to being a ‘mediator’ (used for processing/ creation but not for storing).

  7. geoffb says:

    This was a great article, thank you. One question I have about the links to files; do you use NoteBook on multiple computers, and if so, how well do the links copy across?

    • macademise says:

      Thanks for that, Goeff. I don’t use Notebook on multiple computers, only across my Air and iPad. My guess (but it’s just a guess) is that imported files would transfer over. There are two ways to attach files, the first is to provide a link to the relevant location on your hard drive (which would not transfer), and the second is to import the whole document. I stopped doing the second option because Notebook created a separate notebook page for each page in the pdf file, which I just found annoying. So in short, unfortunately I can’t really answer your question – but perhaps a reader can chime in.

  8. Pingback: Digitalising your academic literature: tablets versus e-ink | Macademise

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  10. JME says:

    This is really helpful! I was wondering if you think your technique has the ability to ‘scale up.’ I’m tasked with reviewing/studying several years worth of scientific literature from multiple journals to pass a rather large test this fall. Although I like the idea of one page per article, do you think this will work for hundreds? My sense is I will be best to organize by subject and before I read your post, I was planning to do one writing page per topic with cells for each article and children cells for notes about each. Thoughts or suggestions would be welcome!

    • macademise says:

      Hi and thanks for your comment! Yes, I do thematic reviews in CPN where I have a very broad theme per divider, then sub themes per page, then further sub themes at the first outline level, and then I refer to and/or quote from individual articles from there (second and third outline level, and beyond). That works well quite well for me. I also do individual pages for articles and definitely have more than a couple of hundred of those, but I decided at one point to store those in Evernote rather than CPN, because I find the iPad version of Evernote easier to work with than CPN. If you’re only on mac, keeping individual source reviews in CPN would probably be a good idea, because then you can link from thematic reviews to pages with notes from individual articles.

      Generally, I find it helpful to start reviews with a thematic approach, and then decide as I go through my sources which of the articles it would be useful to also take detailed notes on in a separate entry. But these kind of decisions really depend on what kind of review you are writing and probably also on discipline specific expectations. Good luck 🙂

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