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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.

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