Scholarly Writing: How We Manage Our Data

by ajc

Photographers have a plethora of options when it comes to managing their digital assets. Off the top of my head I can name four rather conspicuous members of the group, Aperture, Lightroom, Photo Mechanic, and Portfolio. Each of these, in their own way, allows the photographer to quickly add metadata, resulting in quicker and more focused queries after storage. There are an entire libraries of books instructing photographers on the nuanced manner in which they should store, back-up, and generally manage their RAW files.

Software programmers are required to manage vast quantities of cryptic text. Additionally, they most often work on projects in groups, sharing code and a common vision for the way in which code is used, reused, and the way in which annotations (comments) are added to the code to ensure readability and consistency. The number of programming environments is also large. Apple’s XCode and the Eclipse platform are two very powerful solutions that are also free.

Academic writing, or scholarly work, requires components from both of these disciplines. The vast array of journal articles consumed by the typical individual within this field is broad. Each article is read and (if deemed worthy) reread, highlighted, annotated, and summarized. Too often his work is done in some disposable (read non-electronic) way. Why? The percentage of my peers who continue to print and file articles in a large binder with sticky notes jutting out in every direction is immense. It’s unfortunate.

I understand the appeal of working this way. It’s more organic, and it’s most definitely easier on the eyes. But it’s impossible to catalogue one’s work when its is pursued in this way. Sure, it can be filed. But, do you want to be the one searching for that one section in an article that you read about the second item in a recall assessment five years ago? I understand that something is lost by moving towards a digital solution. But what is gained, the ability to catalogue and easily search through thousands of lines of text encompassing decades of work is far too substantial to discard.

In the following videos, I review an online solution to reading and tagging text from PDF files, a.nnotate, and a creative use of a PIM called Daylite as a way of illustrating what might be possible if a real inclusive solution can be created. Ironically, it will be those software engineers and programmers who are turned to to generate the lines of code that allow scholars to manage their work in the same way that those coders have always done.

There are six videos, each are listed below.

a.nnotate.com: overview – 8 minutes, 34 seconds
a.nnotate.com getting data – 10 minutes, 35 seconds
daylite: overview – 15 minutes, 51 seconds
daylite:tagging data – 3 minutes, 52 seconds
daylite: completed database – 24 minutes, 38 seconds
analysis and conclusions – 18 minutes, 38 seconds

I’d like to conclude with a quote about citing words of an individual who I had an opportunity to see speak several times at the November Learning conference in Boston that took place in July of 2008, Mark Prensky.

He (Prensky) argues that this emersion in digital worlds means that the current cohort of students, and those that will follow them, think and process information in fundamentally different ways from those that have gone before, and this includes their teachers. For example, teachers are serial thinkers as befits those of the book-age but students parallel process and multi-task with a digital desk top allowing both a range of resources and a range of information modes, audio, textural and graphical, to be accessed at the same time. Such students are more graphically orientated than those of us brought up under the hegemony of the word. Given the choice, such students produce multi-modal presentations rather than an essay to express their thoughts and arguments. These are not the skills appreciated by teachers and other adults, indeed they are not the skills we test formally in many education systems where the essay is still the favored mode of information transition.1

1. Underwood, J. D. M. (2007). European Journal of Education. Rethinking the Digital Divide: Impacts on Student-Tutor Relationships 42(2). 213—222.