Research Workflow for Academics: The Best of Digital and Analogue Working Together

research workflow

 

In his presentation at the ‘Humanities Computing: Formal Methods, Experimental Practice’ symposium at King’s College London in 2000, John Unsworth described the seven ‘scholarly primitives’, that is, the ‘basic functions common to scholarly activity across disciplines, over time, and independent of theoretical orientation’:

  • Discovering
  • Annotating
  • Comparing
  • Referring
  • Sampling
  • Illustrating
  • Representing

A similar taxonomy was described by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate.  Boyer’s model of scholarship refers to four interrelated areas of practice: ‘the scholarship of discovery; the scholarship of integration; the scholarship of application; and the scholarship of teaching.’  While the nature of scholarly work hasn’t changed much since Unsworth’s and Boyer’s observations, the way in which we go about it and the goals that we hope to meet by completing it certainly have.

The workflow that I use for my academic research draws upon Boyer’s model of scholarship and Unsworth’s scholarly primitives, and aims to both isolate the individual components of scholarly work while recognising the inherent relationship and necessary overlap between these components.  In order to meet these aims, I needed a workflow that fulfilled several requirements:

  1. Assign tasks to the platform best designed for that task.  Evernote is excellent for taking notes, for example, but doesn’t stand up well to PDF management.
  2. Integrate analogue components at suitable points. I love notebooks and pens so this is largely a personal preference, but considerable research shows longhand writing aids in memory and comprehension.
  3. Create a frictionless system that allows for collaboration. When working with collaborators or research assistants, the workflow can be opened up at strategic points, while still offering privacy.
  4. Exist in the cloud. My academic writing takes place in my office, at home, and on the road; it happens on computers, iPads, and iPhones. I need to be able to reach everything securely in the cloud and across multiple platforms.
  5. Look visually appealing, and capture content in a visually appealing way. This isn’t just about aesthetics.  Visual appeal is a significant aspect of the success of digital spaces.

As it turns out, these five objectives are often at odds with one another.  Creating a frictionless system (#3) is easiest if only one programme is used, but then there will likely be tasks that are not suited to that programme (#1) (this is often the issue when all aspects of research and writing live exclusively in Scrivener or Evernote).  If the workflow exists securely in the cloud (#4), then it seems counterintuitive to involve analogue components (#2).

The workflow that I use takes the best of digital and analogue research and puts it into an adaptable, frictionless, and appealing system.  I begin by uploading articles to Papers and cleaning up metadata.  As I read the article in Papers, I highlight important passages, but keep my written notes and commentary separately in longhand form in my notebook.  With a clever shortcut in Papers (⌃⇧C), I can copy the full citation, all highlighted text, and associated page numbers of these highlights.  This is then pasted into a new Evernote note along with the link to the article in Papers (Edit > Copy As > Papers Link).  In both Papers and Evernote I rely on the same tagging conventions.

The outputs of this workflow are important: 1) PDFs continue to livein  Papers where they can be organised, tagged, and read in the most efficient way, 2) notes live in Evernote where they add to a growing commonplace book of research, and 3) commentary and ideas for future research live in a notebook where I can reflect upon them at a later point.  Of course, any workflow should stay flexible–already I am considering moving from Word to Scrivener for drafting, and from Papers to Mendeley for PDF management–but no matter how this workflow continues to evolve, it will always accept the distinctiveness of each component of scholarly work while acknowledging the necessary overlapping between these components.

Using Twitter for Curated Academic Content

twitter fail image

Twitter Fail Image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The job of the humanities academic has always been to absorb large amounts of content, evaluate it, synthesize it, and portray the results in a way that will be relevant and engaging to an audience (whether that audience be students, peers, or the wider society).  In the information age, we have a vast array of new tools to not only help us sort through this content, but also to shape it and share it.

I am a big fan of the ‘whole-person’ style of tweeting, with a mixture of general chatter (e.g. “it’s Thai for dinner!”) and valuable curated content (e.g. “great article at http://…”).  A mixture of about 30% chatter and 70% content is seen as a golden standard by those in the brand and digital media world, and seems to suit academic tweeting down to a T.  This blend of chatter and content situates the academic lifestyle in a very real and very human context, while also providing some helpful information to colleagues.  Remember, sharing is caring!

But continually finding that 70% of curated content can be an onerous task, especially now, when desks are piled with unmarked essays and grant application deadlines are looming.  To make sure that my Twitter feed is filled with links that the academic community may find interesting, I use a couple of helpful apps to make the process as easy for me as possible.  I spend an hour every Sunday getting high-quality Twitter content ready for the coming week, which leaves me the rest of the week to tweet about the interesting new recipe I’ve made for dinner or the dance routines on Strictly.

My Twitter workflow for curated content is based on David Allen’s infamous GTD method, as is the flowchart that outlines it.  It goes like this.  Throughout the week I scan through the content that comes through to my RSS reader (I happen to use NewsRack).  The content is a mixture of my main interests: academia, of course, but also fashion, design, media, culture, theatre, and architecture.  If I can read the post in less than 2 minutes (that magical cutoff point for GTDers) then I have a read, and tweet it if I think it is worthwhile.  But if it will take longer than 2 minutes, I send it straight to Pocket, a read-it-later app which links directly with NewsRack.

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