Managing research ideas

I received this email today:

Dear Pro­fes­sor Hyn­d­man,
I was won­der­ing if you could maybe give me some advice on how to orga­nize your research process. I am able to search the lit­er­a­ture on a cer­tain topic and iden­tify where there is a ques­tion to work with. My main dif­fi­cult is to orga­nize my paper anno­ta­tions in order to help me to guide my research process, i.e, how to man­age the infor­ma­tion gath­ered in those papers to com­pose and struc­ture a doc­u­ment which can rep­re­sent the research devel­oped so far.
I have been look­ing at dif­fer­ent tools such scrivener, Qiqqa, papers2, etc but I am not sure if one of these tools would be the right way to go. To be hon­est I am not even sure a tool would do what I am look­ing for, not just orga­nize ref­er­ences and anno­tate pdfs but to get more con­trol of my research process.
I appre­ci­ate if I could get your thoughts on this subject.

Con­tinue reading →

Makefiles for R/​LaTeX projects

Updated: 21 Novem­ber 2012

Make is a mar­vel­lous tool used by pro­gram­mers to build soft­ware, but it can be used for much more than that. I use make when­ever I have a large project involv­ing R files and LaTeX files, which means I use it for almost all of the papers I write, and almost of the con­sult­ing reports I pro­duce. Con­tinue reading →

Blogs about research

If you find this blog help­ful (or even if you don’t but you’re inter­ested in blogs on research issues and tools), there are a few other blogs about doing research that you might find use­ful. Here are a few that I read.

I’ve cre­ated a bun­dle so you can sub­scribe to all of these in one go.

Of course, there are lots of sta­tis­tics blogs as well, and blogs about other research dis­ci­plines. The ones above are those that con­cen­trate on generic research issues.

Following authors on Google Scholar

A great new fea­ture has been added to Google Scholar Cita­tions. For those authors who have set up a cita­tions page, it is now pos­si­ble to get email alerts for any new arti­cles they pub­lish, or for any new cita­tions of their arti­cles. So you can track cita­tions to your own work this way, and stay up-​​to-​​date with key authors in your field.

Set­ting up a Google Cita­tions page is super-​​easy and was already worth doing. This new func­tion­al­ity is another rea­son to do it. After all, as researchers we want peo­ple to read our stuff, so we might as well make it as easy as pos­si­ble for peo­ple to find what we write.

To set up your Google Cita­tions page, go to scholar​.google​.com/​c​i​t​a​tions.

To fol­low an author, find their cita­tions page and look for the “Fol­low this author” box at the top right of the page.

Hope­fully, Google will add RSS feeds as an option in the future as I’d much rather get alerts that way then by yet more email in my inbox.

Organizing travel

Whether trav­el­ling to a sem­i­nar or con­fer­ence, or just hav­ing a hol­i­day, using a travel orga­nizer can make the process sim­pler and eas­ier. A good travel orga­nizer keeps all your travel details (flights, hotels, car rentals, meet­ings, weather fore­casts, etc.) orga­nized and synced to what­ever devices you use (two com­put­ers, an iPad and an iPhone in my case). Con­tinue reading →

Researcher portals

A researcher por­tal is a web­site that attempts to list all the pub­li­ca­tions of a given researcher. Some por­tals also allow shar­ing papers, inter­act­ing with other researchers, cal­cu­lat­ing cita­tion sta­tis­tics, etc. Every researcher wants their work read and cited, so these web­sites can be use­ful tools for get­ting your work noticed. They can also func­tion as a de facto home page if you don’t already have a per­sonal web­site. Con­versely, they can be a good way to find new work by researchers in your field. How­ever, unless a site pro­vides a rel­a­tively com­plete list of your pub­li­ca­tions, and cov­ers a large pro­por­tion of the research com­mu­nity in your dis­ci­pline, it is of lim­ited value. Con­tinue reading →

Use Mendeley to manage your references

Every researcher col­lects large num­bers of papers, ref­er­ences, and notes, and it is impor­tant to have a good sys­tem to keep them all orga­nized. For many years I had sev­eral thou­sand papers all num­bered and stored in fil­ing cab­i­nets, with a JabRef data­base pro­vid­ing an index to them.

These days, it’s much eas­ier to have every­thing stored elec­tron­i­cally, and so I have accu­mu­lated many pdfs (about 1300 so far) of pub­lished arti­cles. But the prob­lem of being able to find some­thing fast is still important.

Mende­ley is a free soft­ware tool for man­ag­ing your ref­er­ence data­base. It actu­ally solves many prob­lems simul­ta­ne­ously and is likely to become an impor­tant part of how I work. Con­tinue reading →

In praise of Dropbox

Every cou­ple of years, a new tech­nol­ogy has a big impact on how I work. Gmail was one. My iPhone was another. And I rank Drop­box in the same category.

I get three huge ben­e­fits in using Drop­box:

  1. All my files are backed up online. The house can burn down and I know I can still get my files. Also, if I’m away from my desk­top or lap­top, I can still access my files on my iPhone. Online backup is the only sen­si­ble backup strategy.
  2. My two main com­put­ers are kept in sync. When I fin­ish work in my uni office, I can go home know­ing that every­thing I’ve done dur­ing the day will be already on my home PC when I arrive home. And when I go to my uni office, every­thing I’ve done on my home PC will already be on my uni PC when I get to work. I never have to think about what files I will need; they will all be there.
  3. Drop­box pro­vides a sim­ple ver­sion con­trol sys­tem. Other peo­ple use ser­vices like github and bazaar, but I find them far more com­pli­cated than I need. When I edit or delete files, Drop­box keeps pre­vi­ous ver­sions in case I wish to restore them (up to 30 days nor­mally, but for­ever if you pay a bit more). With a cou­ple of clicks I can roll­back to a pre­vi­ous ver­sion, or down­load a pre­vi­ous ver­sion and use a file com­par­i­son tool to see the changes made since that version.

The best thing is that I get those ben­e­fits with­out any work! Once installed, Drop­box just does its stuff seam­lessly in the background.

For up to 2Gb, it is free. I pay $99 per year for 50Gb. If you sign up as a result of this post, you get an addi­tional 250Mb free (and I get another 500Mb — although I’d say all of the above regard­less). Avail­able for Win­dows, Mac or Linux.

Take note

Your best ideas don’t nec­es­sar­ily come while sit­ting at your com­puter ready to type. They might come while play­ing sport, tak­ing a shower, lying in bed, or enjoy­ing din­ner at a restau­rant.  So you always need some­thing to write on to cap­ture the ideas before they float away.

For about twenty years I car­ried a lit­tle spi­ral notepad and pen just for this pur­pose. When iPods became pop­u­lar, I named my notepad my “iPad”. Then Apple stole my brand name! Although they were low-​​tech, my iPads were extremely effi­cient and functional.

In an inter­est­ing par­ody, you can now get a real notepad that looks like an iPad or iPhone! (Click on the image below for more information.)

How­ever, I’ve sold out to Apple and use an iPhone, so it makes sense to keep my notes on the iPhone.  But the native notepad app is not so use­ful because it doesn’t sync with my com­puter. I’d like to jot down some ideas and then have them avail­able on my PC with­out any re-​​typing. The native iPhone notepad app does sync with MS Out­look but who wants to use that when there is gmail?

I’ve tried about half-​​a-​​dozen note tak­ing apps with sync­ing capa­bil­i­ties and have deleted most of them for being too slow or because the sync­ing doesn’t work prop­erly. How­ever, there are two that I think are worth mentioning.

Ever­note is a feature-​​rich appli­ca­tion that allows notes, pic­tures, audio and web­pages to be saved, anno­tated and synced online. To access the infor­ma­tion on another device, you can go to the web­site, or install an appli­ca­tion on your com­puter. It works well and is very pop­u­lar, but the rich set of fea­tures mean that it is some­times a lit­tle slower than I would like. Also, if I use some rich text fea­tures such as bul­leted lists on my com­puter, the note on my iPhone can be read but not edited as the iPhone app doesn’t allow any­thing fancy. That can be annoy­ing. I don’t care about the rich text fea­tures, but I do need to be able to edit my notes on any device. Still, if you want all the fea­tures that Ever­note pro­vides, it is a nice tool.

Sim­plenote is what I am using. It has very few fea­tures — it doesn’t store pic­tures, audio files or bits of web­pages — and there are no appli­ca­tions to install on any com­puter. It is just a very sim­ple and fast note tak­ing app. It has tag­ging and search­ing facil­i­ties so it is easy to find the note you are after, and it allows notes to be emailed. All notes are synced with the sim­plenote web­site where you can see them on your own account. Another nice fea­ture is the abil­ity to roll back to pre­vi­ous ver­sions of a note. And there is a chrome exten­sion giv­ing you easy access to the notes within Chrome.