Friday, December 6, 2013

In Search of a Better Research Process

For the past three years, I've read thousands of pages of text and written hundreds of pages as part of my PhD program. The work of a doctoral program forces you to stay current with research in your areas of interest, critically analyze research literature, and contribute your own research to the field. While I've developed my own systems for reading, annotating, organizing, and responding to readings and research, I've also used a variety of processes for different assignments, depending on professors' expectations, the amount of collaboration involved with fellow students, and assignment requirements.

As I near the end of my doctoral program (graduation is only 8 months away!), I'm beginning to wonder what kind of system will work best for me. Efficiency and productivity are absolutely necessary, but I also need a system that allows for creativity and a wide range of functionality. One thing I've committed to (and added as a repeating task on Wunderlist) is setting aside time each week to read recent articles and books related to my teaching and research interests. With the desire to stay current and make time to engage in research, I am in search of a better process than I've used in the past for taking notes on my readings and allowing that to feed into my research.

I'm very much a verbal processor, and I know that I do my best thinking by talking (or writing) about it. (Talking is preferable, but it's 10:45 in the evening and I don't know anyone who wants to have this conversation with me at the moment.) So... I've decided to write this post to help me sort through my thoughts and hopefully come up with a process that might work for me. (Also, writing this post is a better alternative to writing up findings from a recent study, which is what I should be working on right now.)

I'm going into this decision with two solid options: Mendeley and Evernote. I know there are probably many, many more possibilities, but those are two tools I've been using for this kind of work and two tools that I know are well-suited for this kind of work. I've been inconsistently using both of them for similar processes, but in order to be more efficient and productive with my commitment to spending time each week engaged in this work, I'm forcing myself to weigh out these options.

What Mendeley has going for it...

  • Mendeley was basically created for this type of work. Mendeley is built to make the process of reading, annotating, and citing resources simple and organized. 
  • Mendeley makes it quick and easy to create a reference list and cite sources in my writing. When I'm consistently using Mendeley for saving, annotating, and note-taking, the writing process is a much more efficient one.
  • Mendeley's browser extension allows me to add web resources to Mendeley with one click. During this simple importing process, I can choose which folder to drop the resource in, give the resource a title, add keywords and tags to help with organization and search, and take notes on the resource to help with future work. In addition, Mendeley will automatically add bibliographic information to web resources when available. 
  • Connecting to other researchers is possible with Mendeley. I can share folders and resources with other Mendeley users, like people on my research team, folks in my department, colleagues with similar research interests, and critical friends, which I'm always on the lookout for, by the way.
  • With one click, I can search for related documents to the one I'm currently reading. By clicking the "related documents" button, I can quickly search through all resources I've saved to Mendeley for other sources that have similarities. 

Despite those amazing features, I have never been able to grab onto Mendeley and use it with any consistency. I've tried several times, each time spending a lot of time initially setting up folders, adding and organizing resources, and gathering bibliographic information, only to abandon it after a little while. I have friends from my doctoral program who swear by Mendeley and could probably make a living marketing Mendeley and training folks to use it, but it's just never grown on me. An attempt to use Mendeley on an ongoing basis would require a time commitment and mental investment on my part, and probably a repeating task on Wunderlist to spend a few minutes in Mendeley every day.

Here's why I'm thinking Evernote may come out on top...
  • I already use Evernote for gathering, organizing, and coding data. Since Evernote works with any type of data (audio, text, video, images, documents), I can easily import all data sources and organize them into notebooks. Nested notebooks allow me to create subcategories to take organization to the next level. Better yet, I use tags to code my notes, making the data analysis process more efficient. Perhaps the best thing of all is that I can access my research anywhere on any device, by logging into my Evernote account. 
  • I use Evernote for practically everything else that's non-research related, including:
    • Lesson planning
    • Shopping lists
    • Note-taking 
    • Party planning
    • Brainstorming
  • Evernote's search functionality is.... well, let's face it... second only to Google. A keyword search in Evernote will search through all of my notes, including text, images, and handwritten notes that I've scanned in or captured with the camera on my phone or iPad. This search functionality means I can find anything I'm looking for in the amount of time it takes to type a keyword. Also, since my data are coded by tags in Evernote, I can find what I'm looking for by searching through my tags. 
  • In addition to annotating and taking detailed notes about articles, Evernote also allows me to move directly from reading & annotating an article to brainstorming a research plan to gathering and organizing data without opening any other tools or programs. While there are countless programs out there that allow you to annotate and organize texts and other types of media, I know of no other programs that provide so much functionality to transform the reading/annotating process into a creative process. 
  • Evernote's shared notebooks allow me to collaborate with everyone on the research team. Any member of the team can add resources, code data, and brainstorm from any device. 
  • Since I use Evernote multiple times a day for other tasks, it would require much less of a time and mental investment to create and sustain a workable system for my research.
So there you have it. It looks like Evernote is my choice, at least for now. While writing this post, I took a break and popped into Evernote to set up a few nested notebooks in my "Research Interests" notebook. My next step is to explore some possibilities for a research workflow in Evernote. I'll let you know how it goes. Stay tuned....

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