Year For Productivity: Session 11: Academic Workflow


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As we begin our second major theme for our Year for Productivity program, we turn our attention to the topic of optimizing our digital academic workflows.

Workflow is defined ( as:

A progression of steps (tasks, events, interactions) that comprise a work process, involve two or more persons, and create or add value to the organization’s activities. In a sequential workflow, each step is dependent on occurrence of the previous step; in a parallel workflow, two or more steps can occur concurrently.

To this very “business process” oriented definition, I would also add the academic expectation of “create or perish”.  Notice I substituted a key word here; in today’s world, academic product far exceeds the traditional “publish”.  Today we have many additional expectations for being productive members of the academic community, including blog writing, hosting podcasts and/or webinars, being active in online research communities, creating multimedia supplements to our traditional articles, and more. Therefore, academic workflow is a subset of one’s everyday workflow; it is the process by which we discover, gather, synthesize, create and disseminate our own academic research, regardless of what form that final product takes.

Daniel Wessel (Organizing Creativity) suggests that “Today we have more opportunities to be creative than ever… The Internet not only gives us access to knowledge, affordable materials and tools, it also provides us with new and widely available distribution channels. Everybody now has the potential to be creative, be it in art, science, engineering (including DIY), commercial or private projects…” (preface)

This new expanded array of options brings with it the necessity to master additional applications, juggle an even larger number of diverse plates and amass various types of research knowledge and output while still being constrained by the same limits of time, resources and energy.  Wessel declares that “in almost all cases [creativity] needs knowledge and skills, motivation and determination, time and effort to succeed. And it needs something else that is often falsely seen as an anathema to creativity: organization.”  For those still searching for the magic grail of productivity and organization, he further cautions:  “There is no simple one-size-fits-all solution for organizing creativity. Each person will need to find her own solution.”

Organizing Creativity explores the stages of creativity considering the way that organization plays a vital role in this creative process.  Wessel identifies 6 stages in effective creativity:

  1. Acquiring knowledge and skills with the topic(s) where your creative efforts will focus.
  2. Brainstorming ideas
  3. Capturing those ideas
  4. Expanding ideas into projects
  5. Realizing the creative product
  6. Preserving the realized product.

I like how Wessel causes the reader to stop and think about thoughts and actions that might be instinctive or unconscious, yet by breaking down the elements of each stage, he allows us to consider alternative methods and ideas that could improve our workflows.  Wessel also discusses tools that can assist the process in each stage.

Librarians are in the interesting position of both having their own academic workflow to consider as well as that of their patrons.  In each case, the best tools for an advanced researcher may be not be the best choice for beginning students. Likewise, the tools and processes perfect for those in humanities may be lacking for those performing research in highly scientific disciplines. Carefully considering these differences can aid the librarian when making suggestions to help her users be more effective in their academic endeavors.

In “5 Steps to Make You a Better Researcher”  the key digital tools are suggested to be a combination of bookmarking tools and concept mapping.  Then we have Kalani Craig (Organizing a Digital Thought Process) who, like a number of other blog authors, has generously shared information about her research process in her blog. Nowhere in her process does she mention the use of bookmarking or concept mapping tools.  She says, “Figuring out how I worked and what I needed was the first, and hardest step, and everything else falls into one of the areas of need I identified (and continue to identify, because systems evolve and change).”  Just looking at these two different approaches to the digital academic workflow illuminates the fact that there are as many answers to the problem of optimizing workflow as there are people and products to suggest them.

Over the next several sessions of our program, Mary and I will be exploring tools that answer organizational needs for some of the steps of a typical academic research workflow.  We will be discussing general digital workflow tools, citation, annotation and cloud storage tools as well as alerting tools and mind/concept mapping.  Hopefully our smorgasbord of tools will provide you with options as you analyze the appropriate applications to improve your own digital academic workflow.


 For Further Exploration and Insight:

1. Take a few minutes to contemplate your current academic workflow.  Journal about the steps, tools and challenges you experience.

2. What is your favorite tool(s) that you regularly use while doing academic research?  Post a comment on this blog post about your choice and why it works so well for you.

Selected Readings:

Craig, Kalani. Organizing a Digital Thought Process.

McCue, Rich. (2012) Research & Collaboration Tools for Students, Staff & Faculty: Creating a Modern Memex:  A free ebook:

Posner, Miriam. (2013) Embarrassments of riches: Managing research assets.

Temos, Janet. Research and Writing on the iPad. Blog post on It’s Academic: A Blog For and about Princeton University faculty use of technology for teaching and research.  [As of Oct 2011, the Princeton blog moved to:]

Wessel, Daniel.  Organizing Creativity. Available as a free ebook:

MAC Specific Resources:

A Digital Academic Workflow for the MAC (from History of Science Online):

Academic Workflows on MAC blog

8 Apps that Make Academic Research Easier: MAC based (4/11/2013):





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