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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

Academic writing workflow: how to read lots as efficiently as possible

Did you just land on this site for the first time? 👋 After this you might like to read the other posts in this series on processes and workflows. Last updated June 2020.

Here’s my academic writing workflow: it allows me to quickly pull together information from dozens of articles into a structured format that allows new ideas and connections to form. It won’t work for everyone, although there is plenty of scope for customisation.

1. Pulling everything together

I won’t go into great detail here, but I collect all my research materials together first. For me, this is PDFs of articles, reports, and book chapters. In the past I used version 3 of Papers for Mac, but I have recently switched to Zotero, a powerful open source, cross-platform alternative. I group everything by project into smart folders using tags. Google Scholar is invaluable for sourcing articles (Papers allows you to search Google Scholar and import articles from within the application; Zotero has browser integrations to allow one-click importing).

papers
Example screenshot of Papers for Mac: note the highlighted PDF

2. Highlighting and commenting

I now read through everything in rough order of how important I think the article will be. This means later articles can be skim read (when concentration levels are lower) to pick up additional insight or nuance. Whilst reading I highlight relevant paragraphs or sentences – as less is better try to avoid highlighting entire pages – and I add comments with any thoughts or ideas. Papers has this function built in; applications like Skim (open source for Mac) and Highlights (a commercial alternative for Mac and iOS) can also do this, and both play nicely with Zotfile (a Zotero PDF management plugin – great if you’re a fan of keeping everything open source).

Want a speedier version of this workflow? 💨 Check out how to do quick and dirty literature surveys

3. Exporting and tagging notes

All highlights are now exported as plain text files – one per article or report, or a single file with all highlights across all readings. The beauty of highlighting in an application like Skim or Papers is the automatic inclusion of page numbers and other bibliographic information in the exported file.

Depending on the complexity of the project, I may just export all the notes as one giant text file, print this, and start writing. However, in more advanced literature reviews, an extra step is helpful. In this case, I export each reading as an individual file and import these into TAMS Analyzer, an excellent open-source Mac application for qualitative text analysis. Effective use of TAMS Analyzer is a post in itself, but the documentation is fairly solid. (Sadly the application is not 64-bit and hence not compatible with macOS Catalina – but a new version is under development.)

I then work through my imported highlights, and tag them. Usually this will be within 4-5 headings that will naturally emerge from the initial reading: for a recent review of universities and cities, for example, I had the headings ‘leadership’, ‘international’, ‘regional’, ‘urban’ and ‘conclusions’. Finally, with a couple of clicks, TAMS Analyzer can generate a table with headings at the top, and all of the highlights below – one box per highlight. The source name – drawn from the plain text export of your initial highlights – is appended (usually Author-Year).

The great benefit of this extra step is a single file that can easily contain insight and analysis from twenty or thirty articles (or more). Instead of thirty print outs, you have one – admittedly quite big – file with several thematic groupings, each with a mixture of authors and sources. This makes writing much, much easier.

tams output
HTML output from TAMS Analyzer: you can reformat so it’s easier to print (and read) 

4. Writing

Again, I won’t go into this too much, as most people have their own tools and preferred way of working. I use the fantastic Ulysses for Mac for nearly all of my writing. Citations are easily managed via your research manager, which sorts all the references and bibliographic information once the final text is exported into Word (or LibraOffice). Ulysses integrates well with Papers (more here) by using the Magic Citations tool to insert references as you write (the source name, Author-Year, is in your table from step three). The process can be replicated very smoothly using open source plugins for Zotero by following this excellent workflow.

I work through the table of notes as I write, often sequentially by thematic heading. This has two main benefits: you’re drawing on notes ordered by theme not author, so you naturally avoid paragraphs with multiple citations from just one source. Second, with excerpts from many sources sitting next to each other in the table, you make new connections between different authors and ideas. Any notes or comments you made on the initial read through are also included.

magic citations
Papers’ Magic Citations tool used in Ulysses

Concluding comments

This workflow mimics a paper method I used years ago, which took a lot more time (and used a lot more paper). Some may prefer to read from paper copies – I tend to print just the most important articles. Others prefer to write as they read.

For those working outside the social sciences this workflow may not work so well – but I’d be interested to test this. It doesn’t work so well with books unless you have a PDF version, although these are often cumbersome. I tend to take separate notes on books in a plain text file to be used in step three.

Lastly, the flow in workflow is important. If you wait too long between the first few stages and stage four (writing) you begin to lose the connections you form when you make the initial highlights. The wider context of selected sentences is lost, and you forget why you highlighted certain sections in the first place.

(Photo credit)