Paper Stacks vs. Android Apps

copy paper
According to Wikimedia, this is what a typical stack of paper looks like… (CC-BY-SA) Jonathan Joseph Bondhus

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…

About Mathis Lohaus

Political scientist (postdoc) at Freie Universität Berlin. For more information please visit my website. I'm interested in international organizations, norm and policy diffusion, the politics of anti-corruption, and global IR / sociology of science. Always trying to learn new things.

2 thoughts on “Paper Stacks vs. Android Apps

  1. Great post, thanks! I’m always interested in the tools other people are using. Scanning + OCR is actually a pretty good idea, I’ll definitely think about giving that a try. I’m also increasingly finding evernote to be really useful. Right now, I’m trying to use Evernote as a dissertation journal where I save all my dissertation ideas in separate notes (or in a single note, if the ideas are connected). In order to write a paper (or an expose), I draw them together, sort them, think about them and write up my ideas in an old-fashioned word document. That actually works quite well, the only thing that you need to start to put just EVERYTHING in Evernote for it to be effective. I used to keep Word files with notes on my dissertation in addition to the Evernote notes and it just ended up being a mess. So definitely advocating for ONE system for organizing notes.

    Zotero works actually quite well for syncing my references across devices. In terms of calendars, I haven’t quite figured out how to consolidate Google Calendar (private) and Outlook… (work)

    I put together a list with a couple of additional ideas on tools and software some time ago (in German) .

    1. Hi Felix, your tips for reading online are great. I kind of missed that part. I also use Tweetdeck and Google Reader (as long as it’s still running)…

      Regarding calendar: Have you tried different sub-calendars in Google? This way, you can unsubscribe from your work calendar on your private PC, or vice versa; you can also give them different color codes.

      Mental note to self: I should really use Evernote more consistently.

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