Information Technology for the Student Researcher

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A lot of fellow students have asked me about the technology I use for research and writing. I am known by friends for my enthusiasm for information technology and its applications. Not technology for its own sake, but in order to make studying simpler. Juggling a demanding job and private practice as a counsellor with home life and other interests (I play drums in a band) means that doing a part-time PhD is not easy. I have also just completed an 84,000 word book which took 12 months to write. I am not the world’s most organised person, but in this blog I will catalogue and explain how my research materials are organised. Perhaps I should start by saying that I am not endorsing any product or gizmo for commercial gain. Nobody is paying me to write this.

The hardware I use.
At the epicentre of my research is the iPad. (Actually the epicentre should be my brain, but nowadays it needs help). The iPad goes everywhere with me, so that if I find myself at a loose end, for example when an appointment is cancelled, I can sit and read and/or write. All the other technology I use revolves around the iPad. On it I have access to my entire library of journal articles, stored as pdf files. I also have a number of ebooks, so I need the iPad Kindle app to use some of them. As much as I like to feed an addiction for real paper books, where important works are available in electronic form, I have a few of those too. I also have Chamber’s Dictionary and Thesaurus on the iPad. Ebooks are searchable, which means they save time. Around my iPad I have a Windows laptop, a Mac desktop with Microsoft Office, and an iPhone. The laptop is passworded for my research, in line with research ethics guidelines, and I do not use it for emails (one exception, see below), so as to minimise spam and virus risk. I have University and professional email addresses on my iPhone and on the Mac I have these emails plus another I use for online shopping, which attracts the spam away from the other accounts.

Wherever I am, I can write on the iPad using the app Documents To Go. I can also annotate journal articles using the app PDF Expert. I convert the Word documents produced by Documents To Go into PDF files using the app PDF Converter. Some of the journal articles and book chapters I acquire as photocopies, so you may ask, “How are these transferred to the iPad?” For this, a scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) is invaluable. I use an Epson scanner with OCR software, connected to a vintage, pre-Intel Apple Mac desktop machine. Here’s a really useful tip: When you scan your hardcopy journal or book chapter for OCR, convert it to a Word document, but retain each separate page. Then as a Word document, number the pages to match the original journal or book chapter pages. Having done that, convert your word document to a PDF file (either on the computer or on the iPad). Now you have a searchable and annotatable iPad PDF document. If you cite a quote from your document, you know that the page number of your scanned hardcopy matches the original article.

Saving Google Books pages on an iPad
I’m sure this next tip is technically a breach of copyright laws. Sometimes, Google Books will give you accesss to the page of a book you are looking for to find the source of a quote, but it will not allow you to save it. The iPad allows you to turn what is on your screen into a saved picture. Hold down the rectangular button on the top and very quickly press the concave button on the front. You should hear a noise like a camera shutter and for a moment the screen goes white. Now the picture on your screen is in your pictures folder. If you hold the buttons down for too long, your iPad closes. Just open it and try again, it mostly works the second time.

You may ask, “How do I get files from a computer to an iPad?” As I’m sure you know, iPads won’t take a memory stick. To get round this I have a freebie email address to my iPad that nobody else knows about, so I get no spam. I just use this email to send files to and from iPad to work computer, laptop, iPhone or desktop machine. I also have Dropbox on all my systems. Dropbox is available free up to a certain capacity, then by subscription. I am told that some universities have banned staff from using Dropbox, because of legal copyright technicalities for any files saved there. However, I use it without any difficulties. For those unfamiliar with Dropbox, it sits on your PC desktop looking like any other folder. You can save or drag and drop files to it, but files saved on, for example your laptop, magically appear in the Dropbox folder of all your other gadgets, including your smartphone. This means that every file on my iPad is backed up and accessible on every other piece of kit I use, including online, so that with a password, I can get my files from any computer. You do need a WiFi connection to use Dropbox, because actually the files in it are not on your device but out on a Cloud somewhere in the Californian desert. The iPad’s contents are also backed up on iCloud, so if my technological epicentre is lost or stolen, a new iPad picks up all its data. Being a belt-and-braces sort of person, I also back everything up on two separate, encrypted memory sticks and two external hard drives. My research raw data is also stored on CD ROM in a locked filing cabinet. Only a named person and I have a key.

Ideas onto the page
The obvious way to get words on paper is by conventional word processing, so as you would expect, I use Word on a laptop most of the time. I can also type in Documents To Go on the iPad using the touch screen. However I find it fiddly and tedious, especially when trying to move the cursor to make insertions and corrections. To get round this I have a portable bluetooth keyboard. Another way to get text into the iPad is to handwrite it, using a Wacom Bamboo Solo stylus and an app called 7notesHD Premium. As I write at the bottom of the screen, the top of the screen converts it to a text file, which I can transfer to Documents To Go. Then I can either send it to Dropbox or email it to my laptop, where I have my blog software. This blog was handwritten with a stylus on the iPad in spare moments over a weekend. I also have an iPad app called BlogPad Pro which allows me to write blog pages and upload them.

I find that handwritten text tends to have a different style to typed text: it flows more easily. If I want to write in a more conversational style, I don a headset microphone and dictate the text using Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 software on my laptop. It does take some getting used to and at first it is slow to learn (teaching it to write “Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock” was hilarious”), but I’m glad I stayed the course, because slowly the software learns the user’s voice and the user learns Dragon’s quirks. For example it hears and ‘understands’ words in context, so it helps if you dictate at conversational speed rather than speak slowly and deliberately. You can teach it unusual words like authors’ names, and rather unnervingly, it goes through your Word files when you are not looking, learning your writing style and vocabulary. I use it to transcribe recordings. The core of my research involves recording and transcribing human speech. Dragon Naturally cannot cope with the voices of strangers, especially if they are played from recordings. To get round this, I listen to the recording in bite-sized chunks, and dictate what has been said onto the page.

The LiveScribe Smartpen
The Livescribe Smartpen is my essential kit for tutorials and lectures; the nearest thing to magic I have come across as gizmos go. Unfortunately not enough people seem to know about them, so the big capitalist chain stores me be phasing them out of their stock lists (it’s called consumer choice: “Sorry, Madam/Sir there’s no call for them!”). I notice they are still available on Amazon.
This pen writes on special (but affordable) paper you can buy as A4 spiral bound note pads or small pocket notebooks. It is essentially a chunky ballpoint pen that takes refills. Now suppose you are in a tutorial or lecture. You switch on the digital recorder that is built into the pen. As you take notes, the pen ‘remembers’ what words were being spoken at that point in your writing. If later you find a part of your notes you don’t understand, then you touch the Smartpen on your query in the notes, and it plays back the words being spoken at the time you wrote that particular note. It works because next to the nib is a tiny camera that is constantly photographing whereabouts on the paper your pen is as it records its surroundings. If you then plug your pen into a laptop with Livescribe software installed, it will upload a copy of your notes, which appear as a replica handwritten page. This can be converted into a Word file at the click of a mouse, providing your handwriting is reasonable. The pen charges from any USB socket.

Endnote and Reference Manager
For those unfamiliar with this referencing software, Endnote, and its close relative Reference Manager, store all your references in one database. If you buy your own copy, you can legally install on two machines for your personal use. Both Endnote and Reference Manager link seamlessly with Word, so as you cite the work of others, then (providing this exists in your database), references, correctly formatted, are added in the text and to you reference list at the end of the work. All the alphabetical ordering is done for you too. At the click of a mouse you can change the referencing style; for example from Harvard to APA. I recently passed the 1000 mark for the number of journal and book references in my database, and by using Google Scholar and myBib (see below), I am adding to the list all the time. It means I hardly ever have to write out a reference, and if I do, it is into the Endnote database and after that NEVER EVER AGAIN! Whether you choose Endnote or Reference Manager will depend largely on what your University uses. I have tried both and prefer Endnote.

Literature searching and organising
Apart from library databases, I do most searching using Google Scholar. What I like is the ability to drop Google Scholar citations straight into Endnote, although I find that many of these citations are incomplete and need ‘tidying up’. I previously used Reference Manager, but what I like about Endnote is the ability to link all my journal PDF copies into the database. It was a simple job to import my Reference Manager database into Endnote. I also like the fact that I can access my Endnote database online, and I have a version on my iPad too.

Scanning book bar codes for citations
This is where the scanning feature on my iPhone comes in useful. I discovered an app called myBib. To add a book to the myBib library, I simply scan the bar code on the dust cover, or manually enter the ISBN number. I can then email the listing as a BibTex file to my laptop and save the body of the email as a text file. Endnote can then import this file using the appropriate filter (In this case BibTex Adept Jan-2013-Ver 4). As if by magic, the reference is added to my Endnote database, without having to type anything. Adept Scientific, the brilliant and very helpful creators of Endnote, designed this filter for me, and I am sure they will make it available on request. Ask for the BibTex Adept Jan-2013-Ver 4 filter.

Mobile WiFi
Although smart phones and some tablets have WiFi connectivity built in, if you want WiFi available for all your machines anytime, anywhere, get a mobile WiFi. The gadget is palm-sized (your hand, not a tree) and works just the same as your home router, except that you don’t connect it to a phone line and it is rechargeable from a USB socket. Mobile WiFis contain a SIM card and are available on a pay-as-you-go basis. In the Wilson household we just pay for ours when we are away from home. For remote parts of the country we have a Vodaphone and an O2 one to hedge our bets, although in the Highlands of Scotland this year, neither worked, which is probably Nature’s way of telling me to slow down.

So that folks, is about it. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for other labour-saving devices for the overworked, stressed-out researcher, please feel free to comment. My apologies for having to moderate these comments before they appear: it’s the only way to defeat the army of unprincipled scammers set on trying to get free publicity for their shady businesses, dodgy videos etc.

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