Coronavirus has completely changed how we work across most professions including in academic research. While those impromptu conversations around the coffee machine at work, or over drinks at academic conferences seem both a distant memory and a far-flung future dream, there have been some wins for collaborative working as well. Lockdown has brought both technological improvements and culture-change around the use of video conferencing and collaboration tools. A colleague – Dr. Stuart Stewart based at the University of Manchester and I (based at the University of Bristol) have been “meeting” once a week to discuss the creation of a concept paper covering ideas that have been percolating for years after a fortuitous meeting at a conference in 2018. Both of us are tech-adept and we often discuss ways that we can use software (and other technology) to enhance our work.
Google Meet is now our default platform to meet over – I run a “G-Suite” account which allows me to have my own domain name but use all of Google’s software such as Mail, Calendar and Drive seamlessly; I can book a meeting directly into my online calendar and add a Meet link with a single click. Most work events use Zoom and Microsoft Teams but we’ve found that Google Meet tends to be faster and more reliable than Teams and doesn’t have the 40 minute restriction that (free) Zoom has.
When we’re talking, we still use WhatsApp to send each other links or screenshots – we’ve been chatting on WhatsApp since we met and the “WhatsApp Web” platform adds additional capability to quickly share written information from your laptop to someone else’s; it’s also preserved for posterity when we need the link again.
Our discussions not only cover what we want to learn and express but also how we try to organise our thoughts between these. It’s not fresh news to point out that our brains are both incredibly powerful at making fresh connections between source material and also terrible at compiling and remembering those sources in a systematic way. How do I effectively record all the ideas I’ve had when reading that paper ready for when I want to collate and express them later?
Stuart recommended the new platform ‘Roam‘ as a possible solution to this problem. Looking at their work and what they are trying to achieve gives me a feeling that they are genuinely creating something great that’s just on the periphery of my consciousness and it’s possibly more to do with my inability to relax and flow into this different way of working than anything to do with their solution. I tried it for a few days and still didn’t quite “get it” but that doesn’t mean I’m not excited to see where they go in the future and hope they survive these challenging economic times.
For the moment, I have taken some of the concepts around daily journaling and hyperlinking back to the software platform that I have been using for nearly 10 years now – Evernote. I found this tool during my medical degree and now have over 4000 “notes” stored there; I have everything from scans of my kids’ artwork to a hyperlinked digital portfolio/CV. I have all of my study notes that get updated and re-used regularly in my clinical work, and I keep my productivity high by using the “Getting Things Done (GTD)” method through it. It can be frustratingly buggy is some basic areas *cough*tables*cough* but its cross-platform apps and widgets and the reassurance that I have never lost a single note allows me to dump anything into it and know it’s safe.
Despite Stuart being a more avid user of Roam (maybe his brain is just bigger and fresher!), he is also a fan of Notion. This has a similar offering to Evernote and I tried it for a short while and felt that it was better looking and potentially more powerful but unfortunately, their import from Evernote is not yet fully working and their Android offering isn’t as comprehensive so I’m sticking with Evernote for now.
Stuart and I’s remote paper-writing collaboration to create a paper started with Microsoft Word with us sending the document to each other to review. Word is universal and it is one of the many platforms that have a plugin for my (new) favourite citation manager – Zotero. I am relatively new to this package having tried several others but it seems to have everything you want in a tool of this type – storing, tagging and making notes on research documents. Some of the neat tools that work particularly well with it include the Chrome extension to easily get a document from a web-page into it and sharing libraries in teams which has been vital when working so closely together.
We have now moved on from Word to far more real-time collaborative writing where we can work online on the same paper at exactly the same time. First, we tried Overleaf which I imagine could be the “go to” tool for collaborative writing if you’re working with LaTeX. I keep thinking I should learn this ‘language’ but haven’t found the initial steep learning curve has been worth it yet. Instead, we fairly quickly switched to Authorea which combines a solid online paper-writing collaboration tool with the interesting concept of being able to freely publish a paper on their platform getting that all important DOI number without the lengthy process found in more traditional peer-reviewed journals. Our plan is still to see if a more mainstream publication will take our paper but it provides a fascinating alternative to getting your ideas out into the world compared to the peer-reviewed journal route.
Finally, in this far more online academic world, it’s important to have more than just a journal paper to express your ideas and connect with people, you need an online presence. I use Dreamhost to host my many websites and during one of our meetings, I bought a couple of domain names on Stuart’s behalf. In the space of a few minutes, he was able to transfer the money back to me using “Settle Up” through my app-based account with Starling Bank which instantly showed the money had arrived with a simple notification. Transferring money instantly and securely this way was a new experience for both of us and as someone old enough to remember my first building society account book where my changing balance was typed onto the next line each time I deposited some pocket money, it really brought home how integral technology is to how we run our world, whether it is in academic research or anything else.
Edit (29/09/2020): Ironically, soon after posting this, the bugs in Mendeley Citation Manager (the citation manager originally mentioned here) became too significant to use well. I was a long-time user of the tool but it has been well and truly overtaken for me by Zotero. I’ve thus updated this blog!