Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Productivity Hacks for the Digital Academic: Part Two

This is part two of a blog post I wrote for the Digital Science Guest Blog

Image CC BY 2.0 Dennis Hamilton
The first part of this guest blog post looked at the problems that new and existing academics face when considering web and social technologies as part of their profession. The second part looks at a few options for dealing with digital distraction in the academic institution. Given that the web and technology is increasingly becoming important to how researchers do their work, from communication to measurement, it makes sense to have strategies at hand should managing them all becomes too much.

Create to do lists
Starting your working day as you mean to go on can be a helpful thing to do. We often start our working day full of good intention and a strong sense we can achieve many things. By mid morning and a few checks of your email and favourite research and news websites we find ourselves promising more for later. Soon lunch is with us and by mid afternoon we start feel bad we have not nailed that proposal, article, literature search. So for the last hour the temptation is just to reply to email and complete a few conversations, as that feels like moving things forward. The reality will be that it did not, as more emails pop up in some kind of technological ‘whack a mole’. A list is a way of prioritising your tasks and what you need to complete. Tools such as Wunderlist can help structure your working to be more productive and constructive. Of course like any of the suggestions below it requires a level of willpower but so does any kind of change for the better.

Use a timer
Like the suggestion above, this is about structuring your working day that fits in with the modern digital academic. For some researchers they have to consider the notion that they will often struggle to retain focus, whether that be internal or external factors. That for some, the idea of sitting hour after hour reading or writing will never happen naturally. Work may always be in some kind of fractured state and by giving yourself set times to work on projects and pieces of work you can have a better chance of at least nudging them forward bit by bit. By applying a timer you can set waypoints and reminders to change task that it is less disruptive than just jumping from one thing to another. One way to do this is called the Pomodoro Technique which encourages you to work on one thing for 25 minutes at a time with regular short breaks in between to recharge the brain cells. Whilst apps like 30:30 on IOS and ClearFocus Pomodoro App on Android help break your day up into more productive chunks.

Put a leash on email
Email is a constant distraction for academics, whether it be the prospect of getting an exciting communication, response to a conversation or just passing on your latest idea to a colleague; it can be very addictive. The quicker we respond to emails the more they seem to come, and with it expectations by others you will reply speedily each time. Email is essential to modern academia and platforms like Google Wave and more recently Slack have tried to change that. There are tools available like Inbox Pause for Gmail that allows you to pause incoming mail till a time you want to receive it. Whilst restricting email on your mobile phone might also help break that pattern of constantly checking it up for new communications. Doing something like restricting email so it only updates when in wifi range not only gives you peace and quiet but could save on personal data charges. There is of course the option of just not checking, which is quite hard for some, but by turning off email whilst working at least puts an extra step in the process. Some organisations have tried ‘no email days’, or periods, but that approach has often been seen as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Use a blocking tool
Any digital academic keen to communicate their research across the web will more than likely at some point start using social media. Add this to email and you have a double whammy of digital distraction if you don’t contain it. Obviously there are detractors who believe social media is bad for the modern workplace, whilst there is the opposing view who believe it has revolutionised work and communication. Like so many other things in life, it is about everything in moderation, if you are on social media every minute of the day you will get little else done. On the other hand if you ignore social media as a researcher you could be missing out on valuable information, conversations and of course a platform to communicate your research. To bring some balance back for the researcher who wants to structure their working day around writing, reading and communicating there are things you can do. By applying blocking tools so that you use them when you want, not when others prompt you. One of the most popular tools is StayFocusd which allows you to limit time on a certain website. That website might be legitimate for work or not, nevertheless if you think you are spending too much time on Facebook personally or LinkedIn professionally, this could help.  

Create an alternative calendar
Again like the to do lists and timers this is a useful way to create a more structured and disciplined working day. Most academics have digital calendars these days, whether they use them is another thing. For anyone using platforms such as Google there is the ability to create additional, private calendars. These can be used as gentle reminders with repeated daily events to check your email, read or write for set periods of time, rather than mix up the various tasks into one cluttered, unstructured day.

Use an aggregator
Trying to stay on top of the latest published research, news and updates from experts in your field gets increasingly harder to do. The sheer volume of content across the web means finding new and inventive ways to keep up to date. One tried and tested way is to use an aggregator to pull in the disparate collections of content into one location. Such as journal contents, blog posts and news can be subscribed to by using an RSS aggregator such as Feedly. Whilst Twitter users can refine the continual stream of Tweets into various strands based on users, search terms or hashtags using tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck.

Set up a personal Dashboard
Working on a similar model to aggregators and employing rss are personal dashboards. Personal dashboards used to be more popular thanks to iGoogle, PageFlakes and Netvibes, with only the latter still in existence. Nevertheless, Netvibes is a useful tool that goes beyond rss aggregators that allows social media monitoring, video embeds as well as using the xml format to bring in traditional rss content.

Eat a frog
The final suggestion might seem like the most drastic, and before anyone goes out in the garden to find a frog, I need to say you do not actually eat one. For most people, apart from survivalists and Bear Grylls, eating a frog would be considered a very hard thing to do. So are many tasks an academic has to complete, they can feel almost impossible at times. Yet that comes with the territory and at some point you will have to tackle that piece of work. So why not do something radical about it and start your day by ‘eating that metaphorical frog’. By keeping email locked away for the first hour of the day you could instead work on that piece of work you have been avoiding for the last few weeks/months/years. The chances are by practicing this approach a few times you will begin to feel a real sense of achievement. So by the time email starts to suck you in, or you pop out of the office for a coffee, you will feel that little bit better about it.

In Conclusion
Whatever tools and tips you apply you are certain to find a few that will work with refinement. Everyone is different and works differently so these kind of suggestions will have different results. It might be that you are already very well organised, so in that case - well done. It might be that you are a terrible procrastinator and incredibly dis-organised, many people are for a variety of reasons, some of which they cannot change. Either way, it is likely that there will be something from this list above that you can use to help you manage your digital workplace that little bit better.

Useful Links

Friday, 5 June 2015

Productivity Hacks for the Digital Academic: Part One

This post was originally published in the Digital Science Guest Blog 

Image CC BY 2.0  Sean MacEntee 
Anyone who works in research will know that it is a complicated business. I’m not just talking about the research alone, as that goes without saying, but the day in - day out bits that all add up. This work is often broken into small chunks that can be a distraction from doing actual research. Meetings, form filling, emails, general administration, data extraction, reviewing, learning new methods, technologies as well as proposal writing, conference presenting and teaching; preparation for the latter two, the list goes on.

So for any academic using digital technologies to help communicate and measure their research, it can feel even more fractured. The more things you deal with, the more fractured your day becomes. That is not to say academics should not leverage the power afforded to them via new technologies, as they should. Whether it be Google Apps or social media, there are tools out there designed to aid researchers communicate and manage their work. By ignoring them, they are potentially missing opportunities, but using them incorrectly they could fracture existing working ecosystems. The Web is here to stay and old academic models of communication, the journal paper, book, conference presentation are starting to look a bit Web 1.0, in a world that stopped using the term Web 2.0 five years ago.

More Tech - More Problems
Technology usually exists to improve a system or solve a problem, but it is often without baggage of some kind. We like to think of technologies impacting in our lives in a wholly positive, painless way. Mobile phones are a great example, how did we manage without them? Yet they are expensive, invasive, complicated and require a lot more attention that the old fashioned house phone that sat at the bottom of your parent’s hallway. Nevertheless there are numerous benefits for such a technology, everything from monitoring people’s health, providing access to geographical, travel and weather information on the go. That’s not to mention access to email and your contacts list via video and phone contact. For academics who, for the majority, are not engaging with the various digital tools available to them at some point may have to consider a change in that tactic. Naturally as the post Google Generation move up through the academic ranks there is likely to be some shift towards a more digitally rich research environment. That is not to say that everyone of a certain age is a natural user of modern web technology, far from it, but they are more likely to be using social media as well as other web tools. Also we have to consider that academic institutions are more liberal with their access to the Web. There are less restrictions on what can be installed and accessed as part of the researcher’s role. So as the world of academic technology, communications, metrics, productivity and otherwise opens up, it creates more opportunities to explore tools. The more tools that get used the more potential for disruption in the academic workflow. Of course it all depends on the actual academic, some don’t need technology to get distracted, others could find that where they were previously sitting, reading and writing for two-three hours at a time; it was less so since the introduction of email, instant messaging and social media.

Harnessing this Technology
The increasing number of technologies, academic or otherwise being used in universities and research centres are there to try and improve existing methods. The existing journal and conference model was looking incredibly dated, and not in the nice attractive way we view old university buildings. Paper publishing with little or no dissemination, pre-web metrics and stand alone pieces of work begin to look very tired when compared to other organisational models. Universities pride themselves on innovation, new ideas and shaping the minds of future experts, scientists and start ups. Technology is all about innovation, but it is also often the bull at a gate that rushes ahead with little consideration for its actions. So trying to manage all of this technology takes some understanding else there is the potential for confusion and misunderstanding in the academic community. The more tools and technology an academic employs the more competent they become but also the more decisions on which technology to focus on; as well as how best to manage them all becomes very important.

The drip, drip, drip of distraction.
So for those academics wanting to dip their toes into the many thousands of tools, websites, APIs, Apps, extensions, plug-ins and workarounds it can be daunting. Often one tool leads to another, one connection opens up another, it can spiral out of control quite easily. For example, one tool alone causes more stress and anxiety above any other, that being email. That constant drip, drip, drip of notifications, updates and messages seeps into our personal space. Bar a stroll in the deep dark woods, it is rare for us to be out of contact these days thanks to our smartphones.

Therefore strategies need to be in place to help researchers as they use technology more, which I am confident they will do. Not because I am some kind of technology fundamentalist who dictates they should. No one should ever make you use a technology unless it can be proven to aid your work or personal life. As with learning technologies, the premise is that a pedagogy is applied to a technology, otherwise it is using the technology for the sake of it. Different tools have different reasons why researchers use it, some may have many. For example Twitter is a great communication and networking tool, but it is also a superb discovery and knowledge engine; it is all down to how you want to apply it.
So the more tools you use the more it will invade your working life, that is if you let it invade your working life. Like some of the other tools mentioned earlier on that fracture a working day, these happened thanks to desire to improve systems, email being one of them. Conferences would not happen to the extent they do without technologies such as trains and planes, so with such as social media and altmetrics we just need to know how to leverage them better.

If you are either struggling to maintain a wealth of technologies, just starting to use them, or thinking about using them as part of your research profile, there are a few tips to help you make better use of your valuable time. These will all be covered in the second part of this blog post.

Monday, 1 June 2015

10 Chrome extensions to help manage references, notes, citations and capture information.

This is an article I originally wrote and published in the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog - republished under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License 
Not everyone uses Google Chrome as their browser of choice, some can’t install it, others can’t get on with it and there are probably a few who still do not realise it exists. Whilst Chrome has a wealth of good reasons why you should use it, from syncing your accounts across devices to its search functionality; there are other reasons why you should consider Chrome. These are called extensions which you can install to improve your web experience even more. There are a growing number of useful extensions for the digital academic, of which I have picked 10 of the best below. I’ve also given the Chrome Store average review and how many copies of each extension has been installed, as a broad indicator of popularity and uptake.
chromeImage credit: Stephen Shankland Flickr CC BY-SA
Readability is a tool I’ve promoted on countless occasions thanks to ability to turn complicated, image and link-heavy web pages into simple, clean PDF type documents. By clicking this extension whilst viewing a webpage you can read the article free of distraction or save it later to read offline on your computer or tablet.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 /5 – 583k users
readabilityImage credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta Flickr CC BY-SA
Evernote is a bit of a Swiss Army Knife of an extension. Not only does it do something very similar to Readability and clean up web pages for later viewing but it also captures the web page in full with its Web Clipper tool. You can also take screenshots, save articles and bookmark pages to your Evernote scrapbook.
Chrome Web Store Rating 3 /5 76k users
If you are making a presentation, poster or writing something that requires a URL it’s important to make those links as easy to copy and access as possible. Very often presentations link to external artefacts, or give copyright attributions that have a URL so long and complicated that only the most eagle-eyed will be able to write it down before the presentation moves on. The button turns the long URL into something much more digestible, as well as make it useful for anyone Tweeting the link and wanting to save on character space.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 /5 343k users
bitlyImage credit: Tony Hirst Flickr CC BY
Taking screenshots can be a laborious task and often resulted in hitting the ‘Print Screen’ button followed by cropping the outer content in Paint (when you could find it), PowerPoint or some other tool. Nimbus Screenshot is one of many similar tools that allows capture and crop all directly from the browser. Cropped content can be edited and annotated before being saved locally to your computer.
Chrome Web Store Rating 41/2 / 5 – 257k users
An interesting and inventive extension to say the least. Lazy Scholar gives users a snapshot of metrics relating to a piece of research. It can be hit and miss at times but is worth trying out to see what data it retrieves. By clicking on the extension in sites such as Pubmed the Lazy Scholar toolbar pops up giving information on Scholar Cites, Web of Science score, Altmetric score, Journal Impact Factor, as well as contact email and whether there have been any comments on the paper.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 /5 – 7k users
lazy scholarImage credit: Lazy Scholar
This works with Google Scholar and turns search results into easy copy and paste references using the main styles of APA, MLA and Chicago. The extension also allows you to track down PDFs of the paper and export results in a variety of formats that can be used in reference management packages.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 ½ / 5 – 334k users
Image credit: Google Scholar Button
This is an extension for Twitter that mirrors your Twitter experience and allows you to follow your timelines, compose Tweets, share, delete and favourite them. It automatically creates short URLs within the extension and acts as a notifier for new Tweets.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4.5/5 – 280k users
Unlike the other extensions in this list, PaperPile isn’t free but comes with a 30 day free trial so at least you can decide whether it is useful. PaperPile is a reference management tool for researchers and students who rely on Google Apps to carry out their research. One of the flaws in the Google education model has been the lack of a good, solid reference management tool. Tools like Mendeley, Zotero and Endnote are quite comprehensive and rightly so as accurate and thorough referencing in academia is important. So whether this extension can match these established tools, only time will tell. Nevertheless it is worth investigation for Chrome based researchers.
Chrome Web Store Rating 5/5 – 2k users
Another citation tool to investigate alongside the excellent EasyBib and RefMe ones that are also worth looking at. Cite This For Me can create references in APA, Chicago, Harvard and MLA formats and provides a pop-up box containing the appropriately formatted reference for  books, newspapers, journals and more. I tried it with a BBC football story and it worked fine, allowing me to switch between citation styles. It gives the option of adding to your Cite This For Me bibliography or exporting to a piece of research.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 ½ / 5 – 85k users
citation neededImage credit: XKCD (Wikimedia)
After a while you might start to notice whilst having multiple Chrome tabs open that your computer struggles with performance. Obviously having multiple tabs open is going to use valuable computing resources. Having lots of extensions running can also be at the detriment of your computing experience. Therefore it becomes increasingly important to have an extension to manage your extensions, especially when you accrue so many, some of which you may have stopped using.
Chrome Web Store Rating 4 ½ / 5 – users 90k