Research tools redux: What I use

Photo of archival binders
Photo by pixelhut

I posted recently about tools for managing a research workflow, and one of the points I made is that no set of tools will be right for everyone. I’ve tried and failed to foist my favorite tools on enough people to know that this is true.

Still, after I wrote the post, a few people asked me which tools I use. I do indeed have a number of favored tools, and since I find myself endlessly fascinating, I enjoyed the chance to consider why I use them and what it says about me as a researcher. I’d also really love to hear what you use and why!

Here’s what I use in a nutshell:

I haven’t used DEVONthink much in the past, but after giving it a more concentrated trial for my last post, I suspect it will make its way into my workflow, too.

Here’s why these tools work for me:

I’m a list-maker.

Screenshot of my Zotero library
I generally start a new Zotero folder when I get interested in a new research topic.

In general, the first thing I do when approaching a research topic is to survey it in the secondary literature. I hunt for the most recent, comprehensive relevant source I can find and citation-chain from one work to another. This is a sprawling, idiosyncratic process that takes me unpredictably from Academic Search Premier to Google Scholar to physical books to Wikipedia. So it’s important that I’m capturing references as I go, with a reference manager that can quickly and thoroughly grab the information I need from any source.  Zotero meets these needs. It’s fast, I can access it on multiple computers, it works with my browser, and it can handle pretty much any source.

I’m an erratic reader and have a short attention span.

Some people, I’ve noticed, read in a much more sustained way than I do. They start with one work, read all the way through it, and move on to the next. Not me. When I’m on the trail of a research problem, I jump from source to source quickly and unpredictably as ideas occur to me. Zotero’s note fields allow me to take notes on one source and then quickly move on to the next one, without disrupting the flow of my ideas. And I can easily find the idea again using Zotero’s search feature. Even better, I can reuse my notes for multiple works — a simple thing, but something I haven’t been able to do in the past because I’m too disorganized.

I’m not particularly disciplined about organizing my files.

I’ve experimented with a lot of organizational schemes. For me, the breaking point comes when there’s too high a burden of manually recording and organizing data. For example, it would be nice to maintain nested hierarchical folder trees, but in real life, I won’t do that. I just won’t. I also won’t diligently create consistent filenames or enter proper metadata for my files. Now that I’ve acknowledged these hard truths about myself, I’ve turned to tools that automate this process by grabbing good metadata, batch-editing file names and formats, and optimizing files for searchability: Zotero, Automator, and DEVONthink.

I’m a transcriber.

Screenshot of my Zotero library
When I'm reading something complicated, like Judith Butler's Bodies that Matter, I tend to write down a lot of what I read.

I’ve never been great at concentrating single-mindedly on a complicated work. One technique I’ve developed to keep my mind focused is to transcribe important quotes as I read. I’m a fast typist and the effort of entering the quote keeps me focused on the page in front of me. Zotero’s notes feature is a great place to record important quotes, since it keeps the quotes tied to the works they come from. And my transcription habit makes it easy to search for and drop in relevant quotes as I write.

I’m an archive rat.

It’s rare that I write something without doing original research in some archive somewhere. My tools of choice for capturing archival finds are a digital camera, a tripod, and (as I’ve written elsewhere) Automator, Acrobat Pro, and Zotero.

Anything can be a primary source.

Screenshot of my DEVONthink library
DEVONthink allows me to retrieve and preview all kinds of media in situ.

I’m a cultural historian who works a lot with film, so my workflow has to be able to accommodate video as well as any number of other artifacts: photographs, three-dimensional objects, oral histories. To make research copies of DVDs, I use Handbrake. I break things up into clips using Quicktime, because it’s easy and lightweight. I like Audacity for dealing with sound clips. And, since Zotero’s strength isn’t really multimedia files, I’ve begun using DEVONthink to retrieve these files when I need them.

I am a slow, painstaking, procrastination-prone writer.

Screenshot of Scrivener in action
Scrivener allows me to tackle my writing in manageable chunks.

A lot of us have trouble getting words on the page, for reasons that vary from person to person. Some people are frustrated by the disjunct between the ideas in their head and the way things flow on the page; others need to feel that an argument is perfectly organized mentally before they can write their ideas down. In my case, the problem is a combination of impostor syndrome and perfectionism. I’ll reliably choose to do almost anything other than write, even though the act is important to me and, when it’s going well, makes me happy.

Scrivener is the best tool I’ve found for helping me overcome this aversion to committing words to page. It allows me to focus on one small, manageable chunk at a time, leaving the more ambitious work for later. So, for example, as I’m slaloming through secondary sources, I can quickly jot down a few summary sentences in Scrivener. As an idea occurs to me I can note it briefly, along with a few supporting sentences. By the time I get to the point where my writing would ordinarily begin, I’ve already got a good chunk of text to work with, and it’s easy to move these pieces around. Sure, I could do this in MS Word, but to me, the blank page in Word demands to be filled with a coherent narrative. The interface of Scrivener reassures me that it’s OK to deal in scraps and fragments of ideas.

Scrivener is great for assembling a piece of writing, but for fine-tuning transitions and adjusting formatting, I switch to Microsoft Word, because I own it and it’s powerful.

My one pressing issue with Scrivener is that it doesn’t (really) work with Zotero. This is a major problem for me, since I like both tools very much. You can theoretically use a feature called the RTF Scan with Scrivener and Zotero, but in my experience this doesn’t really work. The scan misses many of the citations. So once I’ve exported something from Scrivener to Word, I’ll comb through it again, adding the references that Zotero’s RTF scan didn’t pick up. It’s far from ideal, but in my mind it’s better than not using either tool.

I’m a visual thinker.

Screenshot of a Keynote presentation
Arranging images into presentations has become an important way for me to work through my ideas.

I often sign up to present my work at conferences, and not just because this gives me a deadline and a chance to share ideas. I also enjoy the opportunity to create visual narratives of my work; it’s become an important step in my own process of synthesizing an argument. My favorite tool for this is Keynote, because it’s easy to use, offers a fairly chrome-free interface, and handles images and video well. Because I invest a lot of energy in creating these narratives, I like to use SlideShare to record a voice track and then embed them in my blog. (I’ve also created video versions and posted them on the Internet Archive, which is fun because I happen to like the Internet Archive.)

4 thoughts on “Research tools redux: What I use

  1. I’ve come to like Scrivener quite a bit as well, but have the same problems getting it to play nicely with Zotero, which I’ve used for a number of years. The RTF scan needs more work, but there is (unfortunately) little evidence of much progress on that front. With the announcement that there will be a Scrivener for iPad coming out sometime in 2012, I fear that I am going to have to find a different reference manager. Any suggestions?

  2. You know, I don’t really know. I’ve seen some posts about Sente and Magic Manuscripts, but everything I’ve seen looks a lot like a workaround. Scrivener seems to really want you to use its QuickReference pane to store and refer to your sources, but I’m not comfortable doing that. Maybe there’s a solution out there that I don’t know about, though. I’ll keep hunting around.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener and Zotero, and trying to figure out the best way to do references. Have their been any developments on this front?

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