Notion for academic collaboration

Since the early days of Macademic, we have searched for academic collaboration software. The need for such software intensified as our team expanded, our work grew more complex and the pandemic limited face-to-face discussions. Over the years, we have tried Google Docs, Evernote, Slack and Asana, not to mention Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive, OneNote, Teams and SharePoint. Many of these were helpful, but none lived up to our requirements. Recently we discovered Notion, which has become a true game-changer for our team.

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Notion is a new ‘corporate wiki’ platform which is ideal for knowledge management in academic teams, although strangely enough, it has not been widely used in academia. We first introduced Notion when we needed a system to manage a revision of an academic paper which required a lot of new literature, calculations, figures, thought-pieces and draft responses to the reviewers. Previously, we kept such content in Slack, but it soon proved impossible to find and organise past content. We had also used Asana, but while it was good for tracking tasks, it could not really organise our multiple overlapping discussions.

At a very simple level, Notion allows collaborative editing of ‘wiki-style’ pages. Several people can edit at once and they can exchange comments, mention each other and link to other pages.

Notion allows collaborative editing and commenting on its pages

While Google Docs and other software have similar functions, the real power of Notion comes from organising such collectively edited pages in databases. Each database has customisable fields (‘properties’) as shown in the example below. The properties may include categories, tasks, links to other databases, dates (e.g. submission deadlines), people (e.g. those responsible for a task, participants in a class) etc. Different databases may be different sets of properties which allows distinguishing between, say, article reviews and meeting minutes.

Example properties of a Notion database page. We call this one a ‘Research Note’ for keeping draft texts, figures, ideas, etc. We also have databases for meeting minutes, literature reviews, publications, and projects

The best thing about Notion is that various pages can be easily organised for high-level overview. For example, in managing a journal submission we have a record of relevant meetings/discussions, tasks and research notes as shown below.

Display of three databases: meeting minutes, tasks and research notes in Notion

Given these features, our use of Notion quickly moved beyond just working on individual projects to brainstorming, organising and discussing our work on different levels and from different angles. For example, we established a database of past, ongoing and future publications, projects and funding applications, PhD student supervision, literature reviews, classes and students assignments, and the content of our website. The structure we use in Notion did not come in one day and required quite a lot of thinking, customising and eventually training the team members in using it. Yet, it was absolutely worth switching to Notion. We have reduced our email, phased out Slack, Asana and Evernote and started feeling more in control of our collaborative research and teaching.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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