Brainstorming for Your Thesis or Dissertation while Reading Sources

Reflecting on the Sources You Read and Recording Your Thoughts for Future Use
Taking careful notes as you read the sources that inform your thesis or dissertation research should obviously involve recording any material in those sources that may prove helpful for your work, as well as jotting down your critical assessments of the value of the studies you encounter, both generally as scholarship and more personally for your own research and writing. There is, however, another essential aspect of taking notes as you consult important sources – recording the new ideas that come to you as you read the work of other academics or scientists, and perhaps even developing those ideas in preliminary ways.
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It is a well-known truth that a scholar’s unique ideas and innovations are often triggered or inspired by the ideas and innovations of other scholars. This is one of the reasons why academic and scientific conferences can be such engaging and productive events and why research conducted by teams of scholars can be so groundbreaking and influential. When a student is writing a thesis or dissertation, however, he or she usually conducts the necessary research alone. Mentors are there to discuss problems and processes, but the time they can dedicate to any one student tends to be limited. For most candidates, the sources they track down and consult will therefore be a primary means of learning about what other scholars working in their fields have done and are doing to improve methodology, facilitate understanding and advance knowledge. For this reason, it is likely that you will come up with new and interesting ideas as you read sources, and these ideas, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are always worth recording and developing in as much detail as possible for future use.
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As you take notes of this kind, be sure to distinguish any of your own ideas and thoughts from the information you find in the source you are reading. It may seem while you are reading that you will remember what you encountered in the work of others and certainly your own striking ideas, and for a while, perhaps longer when it comes to the most important concepts, you will. However, after you have read a large number of sources dealing with similar material and recorded many different and interrelated ideas of your own, matters may not be so immediately clear, so your notes must be.

You may therefore want to record your own thoughts in an altogether different notebook or computer file, but it can be helpful to have those thoughts connected with the sources that inspired them and their growth, and there are several ways of identifying your own ideas amidst your iterative notes on sources. You can, for instance, use a different ink colour when writing about your own ideas, enclose those ideas in brackets, add something like ‘MY THOUGHTS’ or simply ‘ME’ before each one, or record notes about the source on the left-hand pages of a notebook and your own ideas on the right-hand pages. Whatever method proves efficient and effective for you will serve as long as you use it consistently.

The main concern is that you may rely on these notes as you conduct your research and draft your thesis or dissertation, and you do not want to return to a source later only to discover that the ideas you expected to find there were actually your own or that ideas you thought your own were actually another scholar’s. Worse yet, if you are not able to return to the source, you may misattribute your own ideas to another author or use that author’s ideas as your own, which constitutes poor and unethical scholarship and will not lead to success.

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