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Process

How to do quick and dirty literature surveys

What follows is a simplified version of this workflow. It’s great for rapid literature surveys, and I’ve done a few recently for non-academic projects. No reference managers or specialist software are required. I use Ulysses for Mac to do my writing in the workflow below, but any text editor on any platform will do.

1. Gather everything in one place

Save all the documents you will be reviewing in a folder. Optionally, split by type: in the example images below I have a folder for academic articles, and another for assorted reports, website pages and other publicity material.

Academic source documents

Number these sequentially, as in the images. As you work through them, you may wish to label them as read (I’ve used a green tag to remember which ones I have reviewed).

Non-academic source documents

(Skip to the bottom if you’re a Mac user and want to know how to find articles on Google Scholar incredibly quickly).

2. Create loose headers or categories (optional)

If it will save sorting time later, create headers in a text document corresponding to the final output. For example, in my latest project this was simply ‘introduction’, ‘development’, ‘outcomes’, ‘future’.

3. Scan the documents

As you read each document, copy and paste the key information into your text file. The less you copy, the easier the final review becomes. Before each extract, put the document number or letter from step 1. Add comments if helpful.

Pasting extracts from source documents. ‘F’ and ‘6’ refer to difference sources

Ulysses offers advantages for taking notes: you can quickly navigate between headers using keyboard shortcuts, and you can easily distinguish comments from pasted text. But other programs will work fine.

4. Sort into sub-categories (optional)

In this example, after working through 19 documents I had over 7,000 words of notes, which was a little unwieldy. To speed things up later, I had identified themes and quickly moved text around within new sub-categories (two or three within each of the four main headers). This should be a quick and crude exercise; don’t worry about missing things as the next stage will capture these.

Adding sub-categories. This should be a quick and crude process

5. Duplicate, write and delete

Create a copy of your notes. Name it something like ‘DELETABLE’ so you don’t mix it up with your main notes.

You now begin writing. As you draw from your notes, cite the source with the number of the document, preceded by any unique character (in the image below, the footnote would contain the text “@3” to indicate source document number 3, for example, with the page number included if needed). The reason for the unique character will become clear in the next step.

Writing the final output

When you’ve included content from your notes, delete it from the copy. If you decide you no longer want or need to use an extract, delete it. As you proceed, the copy of your notes will get shorter and shorter.

In Ulysses, I have a second editor open with the deletable notes on the left, and the final output being written on the right.

6. Tidy up references

When you’ve finished writing, do a find and replace on each source reference (e.g. “@3”) with the full reference. Saving this until the end means you aren’t distracted with referencing when you should be writing. And using the unique character before the source number (e.g. “@”) means you aren’t searching through every number in the document.

As with the previous longer workflow, the flow in workflow is important. For effective results, do all of the above quickly. Any wait between collecting extracts from documents and writing means the broader context (information that you haven’t copied and pasted, but will be in your mind), is likely to fade.

Bonus: searching Google Scholar from your Mac

I use the excellent Alfred application for quick keyboard control of my computer. A custom search allows me to search Google Scholar from Alfred, by typing ‘scholar’ followed by the search term.

Custom search for Google Scholar using the Alfred MacOS application

Here is how custom searches work, and here is my custom search (if you have Alfred installed, clicking this should import to your library).

(Image credit)

Categories
Process

Four tools I use to work better from home

There’s plenty being written at the moment about staying sane whilst working from home, adapting to the change of lifestyle, and maintaining effective communication with distant colleagues. But here are four tools that have helped me to actually get good work done whilst I work from home (which I did two or three days per week until October 2018, and have done full-time since). Most of these are equally applicable in an office, but can seriously improve your output at home.

1. The right music

Carefully chosen music can encourage deep focus and boost productivity. The best tool I’ve found for this is Brain.fm. The service boasts of ‘Functional Music to Improve Focus in 15 Minutes’. Regardless of whether the science behind the music stacks up, I find it invaluable for tasks requiring concentration (most of my PhD so far has been written to the ‘Cinematic Music Focus’ station). This link provides a free trial.

A free alternative (but be wary of adverts interrupting your flow) is computer game soundtracks on YouTube – or playlists of such music on Spotify or other music services. These are designed to engage you in the task at hand and for background distractions to fade away. This YouTube channel is a good place to start.

2. Laptop stand

A very basic recommendation, but an essential one. I use an AmazonBasics laptop stand that cost a little over £10. It will save your back and neck. Requires separate keyboard and mouse, which are also worthwhile investments.

3. Distraction blocker

Stop yourself from mindlessly browsing the news or social media with a distraction blocker. I use Freedom which can block websites and applications – useful to shut off email for set periods of time or on a schedule. The very act of turning it on helps me to get into work mode, and once running it enables me to work more deeply on tasks for longer. There are several open source alternatives that I’ve used in the past, but Freedom offers more control and customisation.

4. Pomodoro timer

Depending on the task, the pomodoro technique provides great results. You’ll need to experiment, but I find tedious tasks or reading articles and reports are perfect. Seriously applying the pomodoro technique also allows you to track and increase your focused work time.

I use an open source application called Tomighty. There are more advanced options for Mac discussed here.

Opportunities

Working from home offers an opportunity to experiment with new routines, workflows, habits, tools and ways of working. Through experimentation I’ve developed ways of writing, researching and managing flows of information that have worked well for me and I will post more about in the coming weeks.

Categories
Process

How to create print-quality maps using open source software

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.