Year for Productivity Session 15: Current Awareness – or, Keeping Up with the Einsteins

year_productivity_graphic_15Those doing academic research for publication not only have to be aware of past publications in their field, they need to know what is being published now.  They need tools for current awareness.  One can do this by searching the appropriate databases every time that database is updated, of course.   Doing so requires that one be aware of the update schedule for that database and being a person of fearsome organization.  Wouldn’t it be nice if this process was automated?

You, my clever reader, already know or have guessed that it is.  It began years ago when databases allowed users to save searches and provide an email address.  When the database is next updated, an email is automatically sent with new items matching the search.  Alerts can also be created that notify the researcher when a new issue of a journal is published, and includes the table of contents (TOC) for the issue.

This is still how many people keep up-to-date with research.  But for various reasons, some people don’t like it.  Some find it clutters up their inbox too much.  Some don’t like handing out their email address to all and sundry.

When I ask graduate students if they have ever heard of or used RSS, I am always amazed at how few have.  RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is a way of staying up to date with changes to a website – in practice, with updates to databases or journal TOCs as well. Most major news outlets offer feeds, as do many governments, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.  RSS feeds require feed reader software, but do not clutter up your inbox, are read on your own schedule, and require you to subscribe to a feed, but not hand over your email address.

If you follow only a few feeds, you can set them up in your browser (see some of the links in the selected readings).  Otherwise choose an RSS reader software.  As usual, Wikipedia has the most in-depth look at feed aggregators, though as is often the case, the sheer numbers they cover are a bit mind-numbing.  The most widely used software in the world was Google Reader, which the company shut down as of June 30th, 2013.  If you are new to using RSS, this has the odd effect that now there are lots of articles/blog posts published in the spring and summer of 2013 discussing the merits of various readers.  Just Google (oh, what delightful irony) “alternatives to google reader” to find one quinzillion articles on the topic.  So far, Feedly seems to be the most commonly-mentioned alternative, and it does have mobile apps available.

So how to know if a website (including blogs) or databases have RSS alerts available?  The most common indication is the orange curved stripe icon to the right. rss_icon_2  Clicking on that will give you the URL of the feed that you can add into your aggregator.  Most databases will generate a feed URL for searches, and some for journal TOCs.  Note that on this blog’s top page you will see RSS feed icons for subscribing to the blog posts or the comments.  If a web page doesn’t offer an RSS feed, you can create one using a tool like Page2RSS, which will “will check any web page for updates and deliver them to your favorite RSS reader”.

Finding the feed for a specific journal is pretty simple.  You can use a web search engine to search for ‘journal name’ and ‘rss’.  There is also a service called JournalTOCs, which has the feeds for 22,271 journals from 1881 publishers (as of this date).  CiteULike Current Issues is next, with over 13,000 journals.

One advantage to Feedly, besides that it offers a mobile app, is that it has a channel in the task automation service IFTTT (see my previous session on IFTTT).  So if you are interested in a web site or database that offers RSS feeds but not email alerts, you can use IFTTT to have feed items sent to your email, and even customize it to match certain keywords.

Another advantage to RSS feeds is that you can add feeds to a website if you can embed the feed.  Librarians who use the popular LibGuides software for creating research guides know that it allows you to easily embed feeds into guides.  Blogging aggregators, such as Science Blogging, use feeds to locate headlines and links for recent articles from popular blogs onto a single page.

Another useful solution for current awareness are social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo, both of which have IFTTT channels.  For example, anything I save to Delicious goes to one of my notebooks in Evernote.  There are also other bookmarking tools that are set up for academic researchers, such as CiteULike.  Social bookmarking for academia has been folded into reference management software such as Zotero and Mendeley, because they allow one to add records for websites as well as citations to articles and books.  Delicious, by the way, has robust support for RSS feeds.  See, for example, the Social Bookmarking page of my Current Awareness Tools guide.  The box in the upper right not only is an illustration of embedding feeds in LibGuides, but of creating an RSS feed in Delicious from a specific user and specific tag.  So when I manually save a site to Delicious using the “research managment tools” tag, it shows up on the LibGuide in the box with the RSS feed.

As always with a discussion of technology, the only constant is change.  For this discussion, the death of Google Reader was a vivid illustration.  It also illustrates the beauty of standard file formats, as both Google Reader and Feedly allowed saving your feed subscriptions to a standard file format, OPML,  which could be exported from one and imported into the other.  Now, if only that would happen more with PDF annotations.

Selected Readings

Chromium Project (2013). Subscribing to Feeds.  Accessed July 21, 2013.Current Awareness Tools –  Accessed July 21, 2013.  My guide to RSS and social bookmarking.

Common Craft (2007).  RSS in Plain English.  THE video (3 minutes, 45 seconds) explaining the basics of RSS.  Uploaded April 2007, accessed July 21, 2013.

Mozilla Firefox: RSS Feeds and Live Bookmarks –  Article on how to use Live Bookmarks to read RSS feeds in Firefox.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Opera Mail Tutorial:  Using Newsfeeds and Newsgroups.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Sorrel, C (2012).  Five Ways to Replace Safari’s RSS Reader in Mountain Lion.  Published July 31st, 2012, accessed July 21st, 2013.  Discusses how to handle RSS with the Mac’s Safari browser and alternative RSS readers.

Use RSS Feeds in Internet Explorer –  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Williams, G.  (2013).  How to Send an RSS Feed to Your Email AccountProfHacker, June 18th, 2013, accessed July 21, 2013.

For Further Exploration and Insight

(1)  Select an RSS feed reader if you do not already use one.

(2)  Make a comment answering the following questions:

Are you a new user?

Which reader did you choose?

Name a feed that you subscribe to.






Affluenza, anyone?

When I began this miniseries reviewing self-help books on organizing your physical surroundings, I thought I would organize the posts according to how the books deal with clutterers; that is, with whether a book prescribes one right way to achieve neatness and order, or divides the world into types such as creatives vs analytics, or identifies some more complex set of social, biological, and/or cognitive forces at work.

However, as I got further into these books, I discovered that while almost all address de-cluttering to some degree, some of them only address de-cluttering, or reducing the number of physical objects in one’s space.

This post will deal with this aspect of getting organized, and the different approaches exemplified by these books.

There are excellent reasons to begin with reducing the amount of stuff first:

  • “The average three bedroom home has 350,000 things in it” according to Laura Nakone, Organizing for Your Brain Type, 2005.  (emphasis mine)
  • Without reducing the amount of physical objects, organizing can just be moving around masses of goods that aren’t used, that are too voluminous for the space, and that will  eventually become problematic again due to continued acquisition.  According to
  • If someone is acquiring without regard to considerations of space, the problem will certainly arise again
  • Some understanding of cause is required to undertake proper solutions and prevent recurrence of organizational problems.
    • does the person (or people) involved lack organizing skills?
    • is the person bored by the routines of keeping things organized?
    • does the person have trouble deciding how to properly dispose of things, or lack the time to do so?
    • are there emotional issues at take, such as symbolic attachments or fear of scarcity?
    • is the problem an alternative cognitive processing system that has been overwhelmed by the mass of objects made possible by modern affluence?
    • is the problem chronic, or has it been brought on by en event such as consolidation of households by marriage or inheritance; growth of a family; other drastic changes of circumstance where someone hasn’t been able to adapt quickly and decisively?

Depending on the cause, the situation can be addressed by disposing of excess things and organizing the rest, by teaching the person a system they can adopt, by developing a system in partnership with the person, or by helping them make decisions.  However, setting up a standard organizing system for someone who has trouble making decisions about what to discard is not likely to work.

Most of these books define clutter somewhere near the beginning.  In general, clutter is stuff that gets in the way of accomplishing desired purposes; hence, it can be mental or emotional, though I am dealing only with physical clutter as the starting point.  One can think of information overload as mental clutter and negative stress as emotional clutter.

As I read through this literature, I was struck by the similarities in the discussion of chronic struggles with too much stuff and ongoing struggles with too much weight.  Both have grown in magnitude in the last 30 or so years (sticking to the US); in both cases, the solutions seem obvious yet are very difficult for many people to follow in the long term; some people follow common-sense advice successfully and others go through cycles of finding determination, adopting a new organizing system or diet, adhering to it for a while, and slipping back into old ways; and both have spawned industries that include self-help books; TV shows; coaches, assistants, and organizations; private companies (storage and file systems for the organizing industry; large-sized clothing and furniture, among others, for the weight industry); and health sectors (much smaller for organizational problems, limited, as far as I know, to some specialists dealing with ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hoarding, which I have seen classified in several ways as a mental health issue).  And then, of course, there is shame as a motivator.  I won’t go further with this, but it certainly has made me wonder about the parallels.

Now, on to the books.

Jeff Campbell’s 1992 Clutter Control is a straightforward example of the traditional approach.  “When in doubt, throw it out” and “use it or lose it” are some of the Campbell’s rules.  Campbell, of The Clean Team, believes that clutterers (my term, for lack of a better) don’t know how to organize.  They know that they should get stuff out of the way and have garage sales, but they don’t know how to get to those endpoints.  Half the book explains how to sort and half offers suggestions for specific issues such as keys and photos (hence, half the book is in organizing, not de-cluttering, territory).

clutter control

So, if you have too much disorganized stuff and no idea how to make decisions about what to keep, a book like this could help.  One suggestion I found useful was number 6: pick a number and stick with it.  Some people feel compelled to stockpile certain items just in case – for me, it’s padded mailing envelopes.  Campbell recommends deciding how many is enough – three should do it for me – and never keeping more than that number.  When I use one, I can save the next one that comes in.

Let Go of Clutter, Harriet Schechter, Mcgraw-Hill, 2001  letgoclutter

In contrast to Campbell’s just-do-it, one-size-fits-all approach, Schechter thinks it’s important for people to understand why they have too much stuff and to stop blaming themselves before they start working on clearing. Let Go of Clutter is a workbook with exercises readers can fill in, working through their own issues.

This was the first book I looked at that discussed the difference between organizing and decluttering: Schechter specifically tells readers that this is not an organizing book.  Organizing books too often help people “putter with the clutter” and may even add to the problem when people run out and buy oodles of organizing supplies they won’t end up using.

Schechter guides us to think about the past, present and future of cluttering behavior.  Past addresses why letting go is difficult. Here she attempts to de-stigmatize clutter issues, seeing what we define into this realm as partly socially and culturally defined.

She starts with clarifications:

  • Cleaning is removing dirt
  • Decluttering is reducing the amount of things
  • Neatening is straightening, tidying, and/or putting things away to give the appearance of orderliness (note that it may not actually be orderliness
  • Organizing is putting things in a logical order for the purpose of making it easy to relocate them

Schechter points out that some decorating styles, such as country or Victorian, are almost defined by large numbers of objects crowded into space.  While minimalists may experience them as cluttered,  many people who find them beautiful, even comforting.  Thus, there are both social and personal aesthetic elements of how clutter is defined.  Clearly there is a continuum , and there is at least one clutter and hoarding scales used by professionals which attempts to distinguish blockage of daily functioning and health issues from aesthetic considerations: see resources at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization  (I found a copy of their Clutter – Hoarding Scale at the National Association of Social Workers which I was unable to access at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization).  Hence, clutter is not some sheer quantification of objects owned, but the relationship of objects, space, and the ability to accomplish functions and reach goals (we don’t normally call rich people clutterers because they usually have enough space to accommodate large amounts of “stuff”, and if someone was rich enough and influential enough, the house may eventually be called a museum.  (Think Sir John Soane – read the Wikipedia article on the museum, or take a video tour.)

In the present, Schechter recommends steps for satisfying results:

  • Visualize desirable outcomes (for example, being able to have guests drop in without embarrassment)
  • Make plans for visible results so that whatever activity you undertake will not feel futile (for example, spend an hour  de-cluttering one area, rather than dispersing your efforts widely.  In an hour, you will have more impact in a limited area).
  • Reward yourself (just don’t add to your problem by buying more stuff)

There’s a separate chapter on the topic of paper, which is what Schechter calls “condensed clutter.”  A foot high stack of paper, she says, could contain a thousand pieces of paper – potentially 1,000 separate decision to make!  (I knew there was a reason this is my weakest point).  She acknowledges that some people have organized piles, but goes on to talk about how to sort and file, including how to use a file index.  This might help people who have never had much success with filing systems.

Another chapter deals with “sentimental clutter” – those items that evoke strong emotions, whether positive or negative.  Schechter differs from some consultants who advise only keeping objects that inspire positive feelings. She recommends inventorying everything, noting what kind of emotion each object or collection evokes and how strong the reaction is.  You keep only those that are the strongest and most special, whether sad or happy.  For the rest, you might keep images, and she has a chapter on photos.

The final section, on your clutter future, deals with staying at your clutter comfort level.  This means developing the ability to be mindful when shopping (like not doing the grocery shopping when you are hungry if you are dieting?).  The other aspect of the future is maintenance of the clutter level, and final chapter on mental clutter suggests effective list-making as a way to stay on top of things.

Cut the Clutter and Stow the Stuff, Lori Baird, Rodale, 2002  Cut clutter

One of the most interesting things about Baird’s approach is that she classifies everyone in terms of their relationship with physical objects – not just the “problem” people.  She also looks at how different types of people interact.  Most clutter and organizing books are directed at the people with the problem – the ones who are not neat, and who therefore not only blame themselves but who are blamed by others.  Baird asks, what happens when an Accumulator partners with a Concealer?  Where others see a cluttered physical environment in terms of one person who needs to be reformed, Baird describes two people with different ways of relating to the physical objects in their environment.

She outlines a five-step process (QUICK) for dealing with these objects.  The pre-step is to identify your reasons for wanting to get rid of any excess – not other people’s reasons; yours.


Quantify:  what do you have, and how much?  What space do you have?  Once you know this, you can start imagining what life would be like without some of it.  When people work together at this stage, curiosity is more important than judgement: “What meaning does this have for you?” rather than “Surely you can toss this ugly [insert name of object]”

Unload Bairs has creative suggestions in case doing this all at once is too overwhelming.  For example, work in increments of 30 minutes in one area, or remove 5 things every time you walk into a room.

The final three steps (isolate, contain, and keep it up) belong to the next post on organizing, so I’ll save those for then.

The last two books for this week embody pure process approaches, where the focus is not on organizing at all, but on the idea that many of us live amid layers of objects from stages of our pasts.  Many of these are unnecessary as we move forward, and indeed they may keep us tethered to past patterns which are now undesirable.  However, we have emotional attachments to the stuff which makes it hard to let go.  Authors of this kind of book never tell you to get rid of things you haven’t used in a year; they will tell you to look inside to understand why you have needed (or thought you have needed) these things until now, to the point where you are tripping over them or renting space for them.  These are books for people who have persistently failed to reduce the amount of things they live with, despite a desire to do so; they are not books for people who just don’t know where to recycle old electronics, and they won’t help much with ordinary paperwork (sentimental papers are another matter: old letters, family documents, etc.)

When Organizing Isn’t Enough: S H E D Your Stuff, Change Your Life, Julie Morgenstern,  shedSimon and Schuster, 2008.

 Morgenstern, who wrote Organizing from the Inside Out and Time Management from the Inside Out, has now produced this for people whose accumulation of possessions has taken them beyond the point where organizing will help.  It’s specifically meant for people moving to new stages in their lives.  As distinct from routine decluttering, S H E D is “a transformative process for letting go of things that represent that past so you can grow and move forward” ( 7).  The process begins with naming the themes from your recent past and foreseeable future.  Understanding these will help you discard but only in line with “self-discovery and healthy growth.”

According to Morgenstern, de-cluttering to get organized, without understanding of these identity issues, often doesn’t work because objects fulfill existential needs.  The objects will be replaced if the reasons and feelings are not identified, and the relationships with the objects understood.  Morgenstern says organizing is a process of identifying priorities and finding ways to access the most important things, and this can work when existential purpose has been scrutinized and physical environment aligned with the current theme.

The first two steps of S H E D fall within the scope of this post:

Separate out what matters for the present and future: what energizes you and has value for what is to come.  Clutter, in this context, is “any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you or depletes your energy” (36).  The “treasures” that you will take forward can be valuable in either of two ways:

  • for their practical contribution to daily life or your new theme
  • as symbolic or sentimental objects which bring joy, inspiration, or energy

You don’t want to do this too quickly; you may need time to reflect to truly understand what objects mean in your life.

If you have collections that reflect important past activities or aspects of your identify, you may want to keep several of the best.  If you have things packed away that you don’t want to give up, how could you bring them, or some representation of them, into the open where they can be enjoyed, rather than burdening you with taking care of space for objects you can’t enjoy?

I suspect the most interesting part of the book is on finding “schedule treasures, ” which deals with habit; however, that belongs to a future post.

Heave the trash  This is familiar stuff: sell, recycle, donate, throw away.

The final elements, Embrace your identity and Drive yourself forward, don’t deal with physical clutter.  I did wonder, however, if our stuff does relate so closely to our identity, what’s to prevent us from accumulating a whole new and overwhelming set of possessions to fit our next identity?  Most books up to this point have included strategies for ending the acquisition habit; that was not included here.

Finally, I looked at Take the U Out of Clutter: The Last Clutter Book You’ll Ever Need (Mark Brunetz and Carmen Renee Berry, Berkley Books, 2010).  Who could resist a title like that?  It’ll be the last book you’ll read about in this post, anyway.

u clutter

If you could imagine the opposite of everything you ever expected to find in clutter control book, this would probably be it.  Here’s the first paragraph:  “Don’t buy another organizer bin!  Don’t plan another yard sale!  Don’t call a local charity to pick up your donations!  In fact, don’t do anything but get a cup of tea and sit with us for a little while!”

Brunetz and Berry promise they won’t make you feel like you have a psychological problem that needs to be fixed, and they point out that in fact there are so many people just like you that a whole industry has grown up around you (well, us).  The manufacturing and retail end of the industry and many of the consultants treat clutter as a problem of method and technology/physical organizing systems.  Brunetz and Berry claim that to be different because they address the inside first, giving clutterers motivation to sustain their ability to work on the clutter.  While others in the industry try to make clutterers dependent on experts, Brunetz and Berry will give us the tools to define our own issues and solve our problems.

Clutter industry experts’ message (according to B&B):

  • your house is a mess, therefore
  • you are a mess, so
  • you couldn’t possibly fix yourself, therefore
  • you need us to fix you!

Brunetz and Berry’s message:

  • you house may be a mess, but
  • you are not your house;
  • yes, we have written a self-help book, but
  • unlike them, we are going to give you tools for necessary internal transformation which will lead to
  • understanding why your house is a mess, which will lead to
  • making good choices about what to get rid of, so that
  • you won’t keep letting stuff back in.

Technologies without deep understanding = lack of motivation = repeated false starts

The first step in achieving understanding is to look at what is really there – just the facts; describe what you see, not what you feel about it (yet).

Then tell the stories of the objects; identify the feelings and assess the stress associated with the objects and stories (or thoughts of getting rid of the objects).

Think about how the objects affect your ability to live the future you want.

Sort the stories, look for patterns, and then retain, release, or rewrite the stories.  Are there stories you now see in a different way, given the current circumstances of your life?

Now you are ready to identify patterns of meaning associated with objects and can assess the places they occupy in your life.  You are also ready to start deciding what to do with them; once you understand how the stories relate you your present, you will have authentic motivation to let go of some of them.

This book may not help you much if you hate filing, but it might be the book for you if you have bundles of letters you haven’t looked at in 15 years, boxes of unfinished craft projects, 257 figurines people have given you since you were eight, or your grandparents’ furniture.

These are just a few of the many books on the subject, but I think they  typify the approaches:

  • direct and no-nonsense, follow the rules and get it done, your feelings are mostly beside the point
  • dismiss self-blame, understand the cultural bases of clutter, you need to be motivated by something more than convention, now that you feel better about yourself here are some ideas, and of course you are especially attached to certain kinds of sentimental objects, here’s what to do about them
  • it’s important to know your type, and once you do, there are actions you should take that work best with your natural inclinations
  • you need a deep understanding of why you have developed these patterns of attachment and behavior, and it takes serious inquiry into your relationships with the stuff you have; ruminate, reflect, allow yourself to feel, and it will become clear.

Whichever of these works best for you, you will still need to organize what you have left and stop even more stuff from coming in.  For the next post, I expect to look at organizing and its systems.  I will revisit parts of two of these books (Schechter and Baird).  There might be a third on maintenance and resistance, or developing new habits.  And I still want to reflect on what it all means, so I am not sure how I will bring this to a close.

I find myself having difficulty balancing the sensible, productivity-oriented side of this discussion with curiosity about cultural significance and gender differences.  Yes, it’s good to be able to find the tax papers, but is it any worse to be a piler (who knows where things are in their piles) than to be an introvert?  I have a rebellious side that just knows that filers shouldn’t dominate the world.  But you have to lock the house before you go to the revolution.

Now, where did I put the keys?

Evaluna cleanup 2

Evaluna ( a Principal Consultant with Interspecies Solutions) ponders the disappearance of the basket of stuff you saw in the last post.  Did it get filed and organized while she was off making a plan?  Not exactly.  We had a dinner party, and I stashed it in the storage room with a few other things.  This is a typical strategy of messy people when faced with company.






Links Roundup #10

western saddle with a lasso on it


Review:  Springpad Serves as Your Virtual Personal Assistant.  We haven’t discussed Springpad much on this blog as it seemed merely a less successful competitor to Evernote and OneNote in the Notebook Software arena.  But it seems to be carving out a niche for itselft, sort of a cross of Evernote and Pinterest with features that neither has.

Remember The Milk:  Evernote: Introduction.  Remember the Milk is a popular online reminder service, one of the best in the genre.  While Evernote has just added reminders to the desktop and iOS versions, this linking of Evernote and Remember the Milk can help the rest of us until the Evernote for other platforms adds the reminders.

Ah, events have caught up with me, and I have pleased to say Evernote Reminders Now on Android.  The article linked to, from PC Mag, explains the functions of reminders and includes a video on using them.  One of the gold standards for productivity tools just got even better.

6 Excellent Free Linux Reference Management Tools and 21 of the Best Free Linux Productivity Tools – we don’t mention Linux much here, since (a) there are probably only a few of you that use it; and (b) none of us have experience of it.  You may need to support Linux users, however, and this web site offers a number of similar articles on best Linux tools for various categories.

Research Management for Dummies – interesting article on managing research data and new tools to help, written by the creator of a data repository called Figshare and part of a company that has developed data management software called Projects (Mac only, so far, and not free software).  I view it as productivity related because these products aim to help researchers save time and be more organized about research data management.

Google Gives Printing from Android Devices a Boost with Cloud Print – with the sales of tablets skyrocketing, it is good to see that equipment makers are making it easier to print from tablets and smartphones.

How to Start Getting Organized – another of Jill Duffy’s Getting Organized columns in PC Mag.  This one is on how to start getting organized, and we all know that first step is a doozy!  This post from her is my favorite so far.

Wow! — Schools can Now Buy Surface RT Tablets from as Little as $199.  Offer only until the end of August, but what a deal.  Includes K-12 and colleges and universities.

Evernote Rolls out Web Clipper for Gmail.  If you use Gmail, Chrome, and Evernote, life just got easier.  Now you can clip emails into Evernote, which has a more powerful search engine than most mail systems.

If you ever used the app for to-do lists based on the GTD system, it is rolling out a major upgrade and a new name:  SmartGTD.  “SmartGTD is a smart task manager based on the Getting Things Done methodology which synchronizes with Evernote, and will soon be compatible with Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Calendar, iCal, which enables the user to create a list of tasks from e-mails, notes and assigns reference materials from files, photos and other forms of data. SmartGTD is available on iPad and in the upcoming weeks will also be available for iPhone. In the near future there will be a cross-platform version hosted on Android, and a Web solution.”

Turbo Boost Your RSS with Feedly and IFTTT.  Talk about task automation!  This article discusses using Feedly and IFTTT to save RSS news feed items and redistribute them in multiple ways.  Describes apps such as Buffer for scheduling social media, sending to Google+, via HootSuite, or sending to a Google Spreadsheet.  Great example of using IFTTT, an nice to know Feedly can support this kind of interaction now that Google Reader is close to death.




Year for Productivity Session 14: Research Management – One Ring to Rule Them All

Session 14Research management is much more than managing references or bibliographies.  It involves the process from having an idea through to publication.   There are many steps along the way:  searching for the relevant literature, reading and annotating relevant materials, capturing the citations to useful publications, doing original research alone or in collaboration with others, analyzing the results, organizing the ideas, writing with the intent of formal or informal publication, finding the best publication venue, submitting the work in accordance with publisher guidelines, editing until the final work is approved,  then finally  basking in the warmth of the shiny new publication.

Even in the days before any of this was automated, managing research required discipline and organization.   Every time an electronic information revolution happened – first with computers, then personal computers, then the internet, then mobile computing – new tools were added into the mix and they did not always play nice with each other.  So the Holy Grail or the One Ring for research management is an integrated software or suite of apps that can manage the entire process from start to finish.

It has taken some time for such tools to come into being, and they are still evolving.  In the way of universes and humans, that process of evolution isn’t going to end for the next few millenia, but there are some useful tools already out there.  The tools often begin as a tool for a specific purpose, and then the design team decides that it really needs this feature too, and maybe that one.  Or a group of designers start fresh by asking what tools an academic researcher needs and writing software that fulfills as many needs as possible.  An example of the first is Docear (pronounced, believe it or not, Dogear), which grew out of the academic mind mapping tool Sciplore.  At some point the design team decided to start again and create something much more full featured.  Colwiz was an example of a design that, since its announcement to the public, offers a suite of tools, accessed from a dashboard, that include reference management, storing and annotating PDFs, managing projects (including calendars and to-do lists for individuals and groups), collaborating with other researchers, and more.  Qiqqa (pronounced quicker) is another tool with a robust set of tools that handles reference management, storage and annotation of PDFs, optical character recognition of PDFs which allows searching across one’s library, organizing papers by theme, and other features designed to allow maximum automation of research tasks. It promotes connecting ideas across papers and discovering similar papers, and also has some collaboration features.

Other systems are offering some of the most useful tools, many of which have reference management as their main function.  Mendeley is offering an evolving feature set with robust collaboration tools and recommendations of useful papers.  It will be interesting to see how the Elsevier acquisition of Mendeley will influence its evolution in the future.  Zotero is strong in handling many types of documents in the database of references and has collaboration options.  Readcube is excellent at adding valuable information to the PDFs being read.   We  know that it is still the Wild West out there, with so many tools available which work together well, poorly, or not at all.  This is not entirely undesirable, as each researcher has different needs and style of working.  However, moving between so many applications creates unnecessary inefficiencies.

So which is the Holy Grail of one software that does everything?  Sorry, it just doesn’t exist – yet.  Which makes it difficult to advise the new researcher as to which tools to start with.  Even for just the reference management component there are a LOT of available products, each of which have unique features and do some things better and some things worse than their competitors.  The Wikipedia article Comparison of Reference Management Software is the most complete starting point, comparing around thirty programs.  Quite a few librarians have created guides to such software, but the most they discuss is four or five – and they all differ in which ones they cover, whether they provide comparison charts, and which features they list in the charts.  Software that must be purchased might be available by site license, of which the most common is EndNote, followed by Refworks.  The free programs mentioned most often are Mendeley and Zotero.  Other software mentioned occasionally include Papers, Sente, Citavi, and CiteULike.

My personal top two recommendations at this point in time would be Colwiz and Qiqqa (which is very Oxbridge of me since Colwiz was developed in Oxford and Qiqqa in Cambridge).  It must be admitted that these recommendations are based on comparisons and reviews (some of which are listed in the Selected Readings section below), not personal working knowledge.  I don’t do a lot of the kind of in-depth research that graduate students and faculty typically engage in.

If you are a researcher, try out a couple of the tools mentioned here.  Search GradHacker and Profhacker to see if there is a discussion of the tools you are interested in.  If you are an academic librarian, look at the Wikipedia article and some other comparisons. and set up Google alerts on the most interesting-looking ones to get a sense of the buzz around that tool.  Remember Bamboo DiRT is the most extensive directory of research tools and it plans to add reviews of tools in the future.  Perhaps one librarian in your organization could take on the these tasks and share the most important updates with colleagues.

Tame the chaos, my friends.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

Yes, I’m repeating myself…

(1) If you are a researcher, try out a couple of the tools mentioned here.  Search GradHacker and Profhacker to see if there is a discussion of the tools you are interested in.

(2) If you are an academic librarian, look at the Wikipedia article and some other comparisons. and set up Google alerts on the most interesting-looking ones to get a sense of the buzz around that tool.

Selected Readings:

Note on the selected readings:  there are so many library guides to tools, and so many reviews of tools, that it is impossible to include them all.  Those chosen are representative, not comprehensive.

Library Guides to Research/Reference Management Software

Choosing a Citation Manager – very nice advice page with comparison tables from Penn State, though it only compares EndNote, EndNote Web, Mendeley, and Zotero.

Citation and Research Management Tools – Guide from the Metropolitan New York Library Council.  Guide has comparisons and pages for Zotero, Mendeley, Qiqqa, Refworks, EndNote, BibMe, and EasyBibBibMe and EasyBib, by the way, were not mentioned above.  They are great tools for undergraduates, not as full-featured as the other tools mentioned in this article.

Citation Management Tools – guide from the University of Findlay with a table suggesting a citation tool based on what user wants to do.  Suggestions include BibMe, EasyBib, EndNote Web, Mendeley, Qiqqa, and Zotero.  Below the table is a list of comparison charts of citation management tools from other research guides.

Comparison of Features for Bibliographic Management Tools – from UC Berkeley, compares Refworks, EndNote, CiteULike, Sente, and Zotero.

Managing Your References – guide from Oxford University Library.  This page has comparison tables for Refworks, EndNote, EndNote Web, Zotero, Mendeley, ColWiz, and Papers.

Social Bookmarking/Research Management – page from my Current Awareness Tools research guide.

WizFolio – guide to yet another reference manager with a lot of features.

Zotero – guide from the Georgia State University librarian, Jason Puckett, who literally wrote the book on Zotero.

 Journal Articles

Childress, D. (2011) Citation Tools in Academic Libraries – “…With an appointed Citation Tools Team, they researched tools and their uses, polled public service librarians and staff, and held workshops and discussion sessions to outline a set of best practices and to assess user, librarian, and staff needs. The result is a set of best practices for supporting, recommending, and teaching tools for the many aspects of citation management.” Publication in RUSQ. Article DOI is 10.5860/rusq.51n2.143.

Steelworthy, M. and Dewan, P. (Vol 8, No 1,2013).  Web-based Citation Management Systems:  Which One is BestPartnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. p. Compares Refworks, Zotero, WizFolio and Mendeley.

Reviews of Specific Tools

Qiqqa – Reference Management System – Mini Review.  2013 article that, despite the name, has a lot of information on Qiqqa’s features and usability.  Warning:  the top of the page has a lot of irrelevant stuff, scroll down to see the review.

Review of Colwiz – Hicks, A. Collaborative Librarianship 3(3):183-185 (2011).  One of the few reviews so far of Colwiz.









Book Review: Productivity for Librarians

Productivity for LibrariansHines, S. (2010). Productivity for librarians: How to get more done in less time. Oxford: Chandos.

I am now Officially Jealous.  Samantha Hines has published the book I would like to have written on productivity.   Productivity for Librarians is concise (158 pages including index), written in a clear and smoothly-flowing style, and provides an excellent introduction to productivity concepts, techniques, systems, and tips that is useful to anyone.  And, being a librarian, she provides an excellent list of resources in chapter 8 for those who wish further study.

Hines starts with an expanded table of contents that not only lists the chapters but also the subsections, allowing the reader to quickly find the information sought.  The preface defines what she hopes to accomplish with the book:

I define productivity and success in terms of balance. My ultimate productivity goal is to have a good work life and time for a good personal life. That is what I hope this book will impart to readers… (p. xvii).

The chapters follow a logical progression.  Chapter one, What is Productivity, gives a history of the concept.  Chapter two is on motivation,  including setting goals, improving communication, and ways of dealing with burnout and stress.  Chapter three covers procrastination,  chapter four discusses time management, chapter 5 systems of productivity,  chapter six is for managers, chapter seven covers how to stick with better habits of productivity,  chapter eight is the resource guide, and chapter nine wraps it all up,

In chapter one, the author states that formal study of productivity began in the early twentieth century when labor economists examined how workers perform their tasks in order to design more efficient workflows. (p. 1).  As the field has grown larger it has encompassed self-help as well as scholarly work in management and systems engineering.  She also discusses what NOT to expect:

… productivity is not about the book or the website you are reading or even reading more of these resources. It is about taking action. It is also about deciding what actions should be taken, and working more intelligently to get the right things done.. (p. 4)

That one quote is worth the price of the book!

Overall,  there is not a lot that is new to those who have read other works in the field.  One of Hines’ great strengths,  however, is in her ability to define a topic.  Here she proves stellar.  See, for example, this definition of time management:

What is time management? I see it as ensuring that your time is under your control, that you are aware of how you are using your time, and that this use meets your needs. A large part of time management is time organization and, beyond that, work and life organization. In order to be productive, the key resource you will need is time, in big uninterrupted blocks. You can only achieve this by managing your time well. (p. 57)

One discussion that does have new information for me was her discussion of procrastination (chapter 3, pp. 35-56).  This is really a vital topic, as it is one of the biggest sources of inefficiency.   First she defines what it is and is not:

To fall into the category of ‘procrastination’, a behaviour needs to be counterproductive, needless and delaying (Schraw et al., 2007)*. Delays in work faced by simply having too much to do can be a symptom of overwork or burnout and should be dealt with accordingly…. Procrastination also differs from simple laziness. With procrastination, you have the desire to do a task, which is missing with laziness, yet you desire to delay the task even more. Procrastination is usually accompanied by guilt and anxiety in a way that laziness is not. (p. 35)

According to Hines, there are three current theories on causes of procrastination.  The first is fascinating and gave me one of those lightbulb moments of making my own life much more understandable.  The main underlying cause of procrastination is fear:

Part of the ‘ fear factor’ in procrastination can be found in perfectionism. The worst procrastinators I know are perfectionists. And most of us cannot do our tasks perfectly. So for perfectionists, getting started on a task sometimes translates, either subconsciously or consciously, into setting themselves up for failure…. To become an efficient and productive worker, you will need to manage any perfectionist tendencies you may have. (p. 36)

While Hines doesn’t mention it, I’ve recently seen some discussion of guilt culture and shame culture and how societies instill deep levels of these feelings as a means of social control.  This is the root of the culture we live in where perfection is the expected but rarely delivered norm.  In light of this, Hines’ discussion makes even more sense.

The other two theories about procrastination are (1)  procrastination as an avoidance mechanism for things we dislike doing; and (2) poor impulse control when there are so many things one could pay attention to (in our hyperconnected world) that the difference between “what is important and what is immediate” gets lost. (p. 38)

Chapter 5, on systems of productivity, is also particularly useful:

This chapter will review seven of the major recent productivity systems : the Seven Habits series,  Getting Things Done,  Never Check E-mail in the  Morning , Bit Literacy,  the Four-Hour Workweek,  Zen to Done, and One Year to an Organized Work Life.  After a short discussion of each, I will compare and contrast the seven and offer some sugestions on how to choose a system should you want the guidance and organization that is provided by one. (p. 79)

I had not heard of all of these.  Her reviews cover each system sufficiently so you can tell which of them might interest you enough to go to the sources and find out more.  Also valuable are a couple of quotes about why you might want to investigate such systems in the first place:

This book thus far has been introspective.- analysing why you do what you do and how to best work with your habits and tendencies.   Systems question you on why you have these tendencies in the first place and suggest complementary activities or wholesale replacements.  (p. 79-80)

The second is:

Another thing a system can do is minimize the number of choices you have to make.   By relegating your actions to a few different choices,  it becomes much easier to make good decisions about how to spend your time. (p. 80)

Table 5.1 is a quiz.  Take it and score it to determine which, if any, might work best for you. (p. 99-100)

The resource guide in chapter 8 is annotated, and includes books, articles, and web resources.  Hines does not spend a lot of time discussing electronic tools other than a general discussion of paper vs. electronic.  She does list resources on tools in chapter 8 in such categories as email or to-do lists.  Since tools change so fast, it was probably wise to not go into great depth on them. She also admits to a tendency to prefer paper.  The book does say she has a library productivity site on Ning, but I have confirmed with her by email that the site no longer exists.

The loss of the library productivity site is one of the few negative things I can say about the book.  Something amusing is that the author bio clearly indicates Hines is American, but since the publisher is British, British spelling is used throughout.  A more serious problem in my eyes is that she recommends not following the news as a time saver – that you will hear anything important from family, friends or colleagues.   She thinks this is one way of freeing up more time.  I find this abysmal advice as democracy works best on a foundation of informed citizens.  Besides, I listen to NPR when getting ready for work and driving to and from work – all of which I would be doing anyway.

Hines admits to having always been a generally well-organized person, and you would think that would make it difficult to relate to perpetually chaotic types like me.  However, I think the book does work splendidly for …well, everyone, from the well-organized who want to fine tune their system to those who need a radical productivity makeover.   I particularly recommend giving the book to anyone just beginning to think about organizing their life.  So, in tribute to the late Roger Ebert, two thumbs up.


* The full reference for Schraw, et. al. is

Schraw, G., Wadkins, T. and Olafson, L. (2997)  ‘Doing the things we do: A grounded theoriy of academic procrastination’, Journal of Educational Psychology 99(1): 12-25.


Year for Productivity: Session 13: Annotation Software

If you are like meyear_productivity_graphic_13, you probably spent a good many years in school reading articles, textbooks and class notes.  You, like I, were probably also busy highlighting and writing notes in the margins of those same items.  I have spent so many years in study that I can hardly read a non-fiction book any longer without a highlighter and pad/pen by my side.  While I was in school, I would then go back through all my notes and highlights to try to piece together my report or paper.  Do any of you remember having a pile of numbered slips of paper with quotes which would be mixed and matched for content?

These days, I try to rely more and more on totally electronic methods of organizing my resources from start to finish.  I haven’t found the perfect method for me, but I continue to try new things and adjust my workflow.  Have I totally broken the habit of taking notes with a pen and paper notebook?  No, I’m not there yet, but now if I take notes by hand (often when reading a library book), I scan my notes so I can file them electronically.  I also tend to file them either in OneNote or Evernote.  Both will OCR the documents so that I can search within them later.  Yay!

This year, Mary and I have been using Evernote to complete and track all the research we are doing in order to bring this series to all of you.  I have found it to be a nice application for our purposes.  We created a note for each topic planned throughout the year, and then have been adding links, quotes, pdfs, etc that we find on each of the topics as we go through our daily curation activities. Some of our notes have become very long, which is not my preference, but it has been quite adequate for our purposes.  And isn’t that the key? Not necessarily looking for the most elaborate tool, but the tool that fits the need of the task at hand.

Today, as you have guessed by now, we are going to focus on one of the key tasks in the academic research workflow: annotating our research.  Let’s begin by thinking about the characteristics of note-taking. What kinds of tasks do we ideally want an annotation tool to solve for us?

  • Highlighting in multiple colors
  • Ability to add in-line notes of any length.
  • Ability to sort on keywords in the in-line notes.
  • Ability to export pdfs with notes/highlights intact.
  • Ability to ALSO export without notes/highlights (professors like this in particular so a clean copy of an article can be distributed to their class)
  • Ability to print highlighting/notes with the article.
  • Can handle citation creation or a tool that “talks to” other citation software.
  • Ability to share pdfs with others and to “discover” like research in a community of users.

Annotation software is one area of PKM that I feel still has a long way to go.  I have yet to find a product that I am totally happy with, and some of the most promising products are written for those in a MAC environment (Devonthink or Sente , for example) or have recently been purchased by major academic vendors (Springer’s purchase of Papers, Elsevier’s purchase of both Quosa and Mendeley to name only a few).  I’ve listed some key articles on several of the more popular annotation tools in the Selected Readings section, and the Wikipedia article “Web Annotation”  has a nice table comparing a list of web annotation systems on various criteria.  While there are several alternatives for MAC and mobile tools, major PC annotation program options took a big hit when Mendeley was purchased by Elsevier.  While it is still a good tool, and may even have exciting improvements for Elsevier clients, it’s long-term future for non-Elsevier clients is less clear.  Endnote, a key player in the citation software arena, has added annotation features to its product, however, it still has a long way to go.

I’ll close our discussion today with one newer tool called Qiqqa (rhymes with “quicker”). Created by a Cambridge University graduate, Qiqqa’s beta version launched in 2010.  By 2011, it was winning several award competitions.  It features reference management and annotation capabilities, a mindmapping feature and manages to plays nice with Microsoft Word and LaTeX.  It offers a free version for desktop use with a small(200 MB) online storage option.  Best of all, it works on Windows and Android operating platforms.  The Professional version (8000 MB) is $3.99 a month. I plan to play with this tool a little more myself, and will hopefully be able to post a more detailed review in the future.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1.  Take five minutes and think about your research process.  Do you annotate as you read?  How do you use those annotations?  How do you store both the PDFs and the annotations? Outline your process, noting any weaknesses or disconnects in your process.  Put a star next to any parts of the process that are working well.
  2. Explore one of the products listed either in the selected readings below, or from the Wikipedia article on Annotation Software.  Does the tool you explore solve any of your weaknesses in question 1?  Does it create other problems instead?


Selected Readings:

Especially for Mobile Devices:

Springer Gets Reference Manager Papers (2012.)
This newsbreak from Infotoday discusses many of the various tools that compete with Papers, outlining their capabilities.

Sente vs. Papers: What is the best PDF management system? (Parts 1 &2)
Part 1:

Part 2:

The ultimate guide on how to annotate PDF files on the iPad:

DevonThink (MAC):

Steven Berliner Johnson provides two illustrative posts on how he uses DevonThink:
First Post:  Followup post:

Chad Black, an Associate Professor at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, did several posts back in 2008 on how he used DevonThink:


The Qiqqa User Manual:

Qiqqa YouTube Channel:

Good Review which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of this product (March 2012):


This review suggests that what ReadCube does is good, but may still miss key research elements:

PCWorld Review (11/2012):