A couple of weeks ago, I got frustrated by the various stacks of papers in my apartment and on my desk in the office. That’s when I decided to give the “paperless office” a new shot. This post is a progress report on my revival of that early 2000’s buzz word. Apologies for the nerdy technical details …
Discovering & filing
When new information enters my “academic workflow”, it is often in the form of digital journal articles. Avoiding paper is obviously easy in this case: just don’t print that stuff! The same goes for working papers sent to me by email.
But what about books? My solution so far is to scan the relevant sections and then run a simple OCR software (in my case: ABBYY PDF Transformer). This way, I end up with PDFs that allow for full-text search. Archive material? Don’t bother with making hard copies to carry home. Instead, I take pictures with my smartphone, which I can later run through the same PDF routine. From my limited experience, it seems that specialized apps for your phone (to help with contrast and straighten the image) are unnecessary, but ask me again after 1,000 pages…
No matter what files we’re talking about, they all go to my Dropbox folder – but you could of course use any of the many competitors. The crucial things is to have all data synchronized on all devices, so I never need to think about how to access it. For sensitive information and for my Citavi database (which according to the publisher might get corrupted if put directly in a shared folder), I use an encrypted virtual device that is also located in the sync folder. This means that on every computer with Citavi, I also have Truecrypt (For some people, a web-based citation management might be better, and I plan to transition to that eventually).
Reading & annotating
So all that stuff is synced across different devices – now what? Reading habits vary across people, but I’ve never enjoyed reading very long texts on a computer screen.
That’s why I recently invested in a high-end Android tablet. (OK, envy of all the happy iPad users also played a role.) Mine comes with a small “S-Pen” stylus that works pretty well for annotating documents and taking handwritten notes. For my PDFs, I just use the official Adobe app, and for Office files I work with Polaris, which was pre-installed. The backbone, again, is Dropbox. Instead of the official app, DropSync keeps selected folders synced in both directions: If I take notes in a file on my tablet, the new version is then automatically uploaded and changed on my other computers. So far, I am very happy with this solution, although I am still quicker taking notes on paper.
Behind this is another argument: I guess that tablets and e-ink readers based will improve further, so in the near future I hope for an even more convenient solution. Until then, I build up a text database and avoid annoying stacks of paper. (And in case I really, really want to read something on paper, I can still print it, after all…)
Planning & writing
OK, which parts of my workflow are not covered yet? One aspect certainly is making plans and keeping track of tasks. For this, I rely on RememberTheMilk, but any other to-do service will work just fine. I also use Google calendar. Both are synced across all devices, so I don’t have to worry about misplaced post-its. (And if one digital device crashes or gets stolen, I just switch to the next one.)
For quick notes: Evernote. I don’t use this service to its full potential, to be honest. So far I just prefer actual files stored in Dropbox instead of putting content in web forms; the same is true for Google docs, which is probably a good idea but underused by me. For e-mails, my solution is to consolidate all addresses into one inbox and then store mails in a few folders to ease searching. There is certainly some potential for improvement here.
Finally, how to write stuff down? For some reason, my nerdiness stops just short of learning LaTeX. So it’s just old-fashioned MS Office with Citavi as reference manager (and Endnote for backward compatibility to older papers). Boring, I know! But don’t worry: At least one contributor to this blog is currently trying fancy new software, maybe they will post a field report at some point…