Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Technology and the Research Process

Spanish Prof  asked on her blog about computer software to use in the research process.  Searching for and trying out new software is one of my favorite ways of procrastinating  improving my scholarly abilities.  Over the past two-three years and lots of software trials, I have found what works (mostly) for me, and so this is a description of the process I am currently using, both to write my dissertation and also to build up a literature database that will last me throughout my career (isa).

One of the things I found frustrating in my searches for research software is that people would often write about a particular piece of software that they found helpful without explaining clearly how it fit into their research process.  Technology is a tool, not a method after all, and my interest was in tools to enhance my research process, which has for the most part been fixed since I was introduced to the index card method around 5th or 6th grade (age 10-11).  I think this is a fairly common method though, so hopefully this description will be helpful to others.

Basically, my method goes like this:

  1. Read information
  2. Take notes on index cards, with one thought per card (mostly) and the source at the top
  3. Sort the cards according to the parts of my paper (for an argument, summary, etc, usually this is by topic)
  4. Arrange the cards within each section in the order I want them
  5. Write the section with support from the cards

I used this method for every research paper I wrote from Middle School through my Masters Thesis.  However, when I started my PhD, and in particular my dissertation, I decided that I wanted to make this process digital.  There were several reasons for this.  First, I figured I would have a LOT of cards for my dissertation, and a computer should be able to search for a specific card a lot faster than I could.  Also, I move a lot and it would be one less thing to move.  Furthermore, I often found myself wanting to have a card in more than one category, and then I'd either have to copy it, or remember to move it.  A computer would make this easier.  Finally, I really dislike typing in sources, and I also thought that the computer should be able to do this for me.  

So now, my research process looks like this (software in parentheses*):
  1. Put source in research software (Zotero, Bookends)
  2. Read information and take notes in text form (iAnnotate, Kindle, TextEdit)
  3. Copy/paste notes onto "cards" and assign tags to each card (Slipbox)
  4. Sort the cards by tag(s) according to the parts of my paper (for an argument, summary, etc, usually this is by topic) and export the ones I want (Slipbox)  
  5. Arrange the cards within each section in the order I want them (Scrivener)
  6. Write the section according to the cards (Scrivener, copying in bibliographic information from Bookends)
  7. Final formatting (Mellel, Word)

I will explain the details of how I use each piece of software for its task in subsequent posts, but so far this process has the advantages I want.  It also allows me to build up a literature database in Slipbox.  So, in the future, if I want to look for things I've already read on a particular topic, I can just see what comes up under that tag.  The idea is that while it takes longer to read a particular article, this will save me time in the future.  The degree to which this is true I'll let you know in a few years :-)

Questions/Recommendations welcome!

Here are links to the parts:

*I've been a Mac user for the last 20-some years, so this reflects that.  When I explain each piece of software, I will try to provide cross-platform alternatives to the best of my knowledge

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