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.

15 Flags: How I Create Habits for Writing

I am constantly searching for ways to better integrate my digital life into the world of paper, pens, and printed materials that I still love (here, here, and here).  Although there are countless apps available to help create and track new habits–many of which gamify the traditional 21-days rule of habit formation with some very fun results–I have found the best way for me to track my habits is with a stack of sticky flags and my Moleskine.

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Refining Technique in Academic Writing



I wrote briefly last week about the importance of technique in academic writing.   Academic writing is, above all else, a specialised form of communication, which remains true whether we are teaching essay writing to first year students or working on a journal article addressing our research. Articles, essays, theses, and dissertations are all modes of communication that serve to share with readers how we have approached our topic and the conclusions to which we have come. And the success of this communication is dependent each writer’s display of technical mastery. This does not, of course, mean mindlessly following the model, although many writing teachers would agree that is preferable to write with good technique and be a bit monotonous than to write with no technique and lose the reader from the outset.

The aim of good technique is to create a fluid and organic microcosmic structure. What this means is, simply: 1) each paragraph is a self-contained unit, 2) which contributes to the argument of its individual section, 3) which contributes to the argument of its chapter, 4) which contributes to the argument of the work as a whole. No matter the length of the writing, these key building blocks will always stay the same, and should always help your reader to enter into your analysis with the tools to engage meaningfully with what you have to say.

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Out Next Month: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence

‘Technique’ and Academic Writing

Practitioners of the fine and performing arts are well acquainted with the notion of ‘technique’. One hears ‘technique’ spoken of regularly by commentators, adjudicators, and reviewers of the arts, who use term to characterise the success or failure of an artistic undertaking. The study of technique forms the core of advanced training in many disciplines, including dance, acting, music, voice, visual art, and design. For dancers, ‘technique’ entails an understanding of the lines a body casts in space, and an ability to manipulate and control these lines as required for various dance
styles. The ‘technique’ of singers involves the development and control of sound-producing resonators, and the ability to produce the desired sounds with as little strain and stress on the body as possible.

And in some instances, the technique has been extensively documented and codified. Most professional actors today have been trained in at least a derivative form of the technique promoted by Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, and, even more exhaustive than that, Bharata Natyam—the national dance of India—has a wide vocabulary of specific expressive hand gestures that each dancer must learn and perfect. These gestures form one component of the ‘technique’ of Bharata Natyam, and serve not only as an elemental part of the dancer’s training, but also as a clear benchmark of the dancer’s successful or incomplete treatment of the style.  ‘Technique’ is the specialist code followed by practitioners in a particular discipline. ‘Technique’ comprises the rules that first must be learned fully before they can be bent, shaped, and reworked in order to produce the desired effect.

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Developing Student Self-Reflexivity In Secondary Source Research

Library Word Find Puzzle #2

(Photo credit: herzogbr)

Yesterday I wrote about how I introduce secondary source research to students.  Those 7 questions, are, of course, only the starting point for helping students to get the full benefit from engaging with the work of other thinkers.

When our students are working with secondary source material in their writing, we should be encouraging them to use their sources to explicitly support, develop, or refine their own argument.  We sometimes forget that student writers can become part of the wider critical conversation on a topic.  By helping them to use their sources to develop their argument, rather than simply reiterating the arguments of others, we can help them to enter that conversation as well.

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7 Questions to Help Students Use and Understand Secondary Sources

May 2009: Academic Writing & ESL Resources Display

(Photo credit: tclibrary)

The university-level study of English is paradoxically both an individual and collaborative effort, with students developing their own analytical skills while simultaneously learning to think in collaborative ways with tutors and fellow students.  What this paradox demonstrates, of course, is that communicating with those around you plays a significant role in the development of ideas, including communicating with the critical body of material surrounding the topic (even if the line of communication is, in this case, distinctly one-way).

Academic writing, even at the most introductory level, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, any piece of writing that students produce will be be a conglomeration of voices—some contemporary, some more distant—and their success in that writing will be dependent upon how well they harness this mass.

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Alan Hollinghurst and Some Archeological Digging

It’s not very often that my research requires me to get involved with something as interesting as archeology, but in tying up some last pieces for my new book The Vitality of Influence: Alan Hollinghurst and a History of Image (Palgrave Macmillan, early 2014) I have found myself tracking down archeological digs in some surprising places.

Skinner's Lane, the City of London

At the centre of Hollinghurst’s 1988 début The Swimming-Pool Library is the grand home of Lord Charles Nantwich, which is somewhat awkwardly hanging on in the City of London as the last reminder of a very different time.  One of the most fascinating features of Charles’s house is that it is covering the remains of a Roman bath, which serves as one of the points of reference for the novel’s paradoxical title.

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The Questions Academics Ask: Conference Edition

Steve Macone, The New YorkerI have always been a fan of New Yorker cartoons, and this Steve Macone piece from 2010 seems to hit closer to home than most.   Macone’s cartoon perfectly captures one of the several strange things that can happen during a conference Q&A.

In addition to the ‘shorter speeches disguised as questions’ there are also a number of other distinct flavours of questions–some good, some bad, but all of which we have seen before.

  • The Courtesy Question: There is always someone willing to fill the awkward silence when no one has a question to ask.  The Courtesy Questions is flimsy at the best of times, and asked merely as a kindness to the presenter.  Thank you and moving on.
  • The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question: This might be only one step above the Courtesy Question, but it is a question everyone is thrilled to receive.  The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question is so broad that you can say whatever you want.  It’s a great opportunity  to recite the parts of your paper you hadn’t gotten to when the moderator called time.
  • The Factual Actual Question: There is no harm in wanting to know a bit more.  Sometimes an audience member actually does genuinely want to know more about something you said: a particular source, a particular concept, a particular line of reasoning.  These might sometimes look like Courtesy Questions, but when you see more than a handful of pens scribbling during your response, you know that you have probably just been hit with a Factual Actual Question.
  • The Tell-Me-What-Your-Paper-Was-About Question: This question might be disguised as a Factual Actual Question, but its ultimate goal is quite different: to get a summary of what you have just said.  Usually this isn’t  because someone wants you to do all the work for them.  It’s more likely that, although your paper works fine when written, it is genuinely  too challenging to follow when read.  The lesson from this question is that reading and speaking are two very different things.

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Too Big and Too Small

English: More rooftops Looking over the roofs ...

Looking over the roofs of Muswell Hill Place and Alexandra Gardens towards Springfield Avenue and the Alexandra Palace TV mast, from the viaduct at St James’s Lane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British domestic architecture is largely made up of strange angles and peculiar proportions.  Or, at least that was the case in the kinds of flats I lived in during most of my twenties, when I was, first, a student and, later, a young academic with precious little dosh for rent.  One flat had soaring double-height ceilings, impossibly narrow hallways, and, in my bedroom in the back, an overly wide Georgian door that opened to show shelves 3 inches deep.  Even my hairbrush didn’t fit.  In a later flat in Muswell Hill in London, the most exciting feature was a tiny window, three-stories up, that opened onto a massive flat roof the size of the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and bedroom below.  It was covered in gravel, but I spent many evenings there looking up to Alexandra Palace in the distance.

Neither of these flats were being put to the use they were intended, and the proportions of living seemed charmingly off-kilter because of that.  The former had been a Victorian boarding house in Leeds, before walls were shifted and latches were added to accommodate legions of Red-Brick students.  The latter began life as a middle-class family home in a leafy suburb that was neither then nor now serviced by the Tube.  But it has lately been carved up and made home to one middle-class family downstairs and several eager young career men upstairs, nearly doubling the original number of inhabitants.  From slim crevices to capacious outdoor landings, every feature of these buildings was always too big or too small.  Or, more regularly, both too big and too small at the same time.

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