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.

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