Day in the libraryOk, maybe not quite paperless, but at least I tried.

When I started my Phd in 2012 I knew that I would be working a lot from home (with a teeny tiny printer), but also that the reading pile would be significant. Consequently, for practical reasons, as well as environmental ones, I decided to avoid using paper as much as possible.

My first challenge was my own preconception that I could only read closely and in sufficient detail if I was not looking at a deconstructed tree with a pen in my hand – especially when proof reading my own work (which BTW I discovered is not one of my strengths!).  I won’t say I totally got over this, I do sometimes still print things if I really want to be sure to be sure, but in the main I am now much more comfortable reading and editing on screen.  I should point out that I am no techie and when I first went to university I hand wrote (with an actual pen and refill pad) my essays, but I discovered a few tools and strategies along the way which might be useful for others.

(1) Universities are set up these days for paperless study.  Other than to get the odd book, I really did not need to get materials from the library.  The vast majority of journals are available online, books are often e-books, and google scholar provides, at least partial, access to all kinds of resources.  In my field there are also quite a few open access journals, as well as published conference reports, blogs etc.  In short, there is more than enough to read in electronic format.

(2) When I could not access materially electronically I used apps on my iPad (such as scannable, but there are loads out there) to scan material instead of photocopying it. Much faster and easier than old fashion scanning, and indeed much faster than spending money standing at a photocopier.

(3) For reading, I used apps like iAnnotate (it helpfully converts documents to pdf for you). This App has lots of different tools for writing, making notes, doodles, highlighting or otherwise marking up documents.  It will even send you a copy of your notes if you want. Another upside it that you can search through documents and your own notes… for when you half remember that ‘perfect’ quote but cannot quite find it.

(4) I have a big monitor – meaning I can can have two separate documents visible at the same time, which was really important.  I am also one for having lots of windows open simultaneously so that I can easily jump between documents, and this was a big help when I was writing up my data.  That said, I was lucky enough to also have a small laptop for library days.

(5) Dropbox.  The paid for version.  Pricey but it is able to hold all of my files.  Everything I ever read is accessible and searchable. I saved all publications with the same naming format i.e Author Year Keyword, for example ‘Visser 2017 democracy.pdf’.  Publications are saved in folders by theme, though I am not convinced by this as sometimes publications are relevant across difference themes.  I did try categorising these files (a Mac tool) but never really got the hang of it.

(6) Summaries.  For my initial literature review, I keep an excel sheet which summarised my reading.  In it I recorded what I had read, what theme it related too and a brief summary of the arguments or approach.  I also took note of the methodology employed, and any references that might be interesting to follow up on.  This proved a really useful tool when it came to getting my head around how to start writing up the literature. Actually, I should get back to doing this, I have lost the habit!

(7) My analysis was similarly on screen.  I used a combination of Excel files and a quantitative analysis tool called MAXQDA.  The latter did everything I needed (document coding, transcribing, word frequencies, etc), so it really was worth the time invested in using the online video tutorials to teach myself the basic functionalities. I was able to get the student price, so it was very affordable.

(8) I was lucky that I started using referencing software right from the start.  The university recommended EndNote but I opted for Zotero because it was open source, and I had help editing the Harvard citation style guide so that it fit the UCD guidelines (which by the way I am happy to send anyone who wants to use it).

(9) For diagrams and illustrations, I used the chart function in Excel and a really nifty iPad app called Graffio, in which I was able to do diagrams and timelines.  Effectively it is a drawing tool, but an easy one that proved perfect for anything I wanted to do.  I did not produce any masterpieces or award winning infographics, but I do have some nice and useful diagrams.

Nothing in this is rocket science, but I managed to develop a system which worked for me. These tools and how I use them are, of course, constantly changing, and I would be really interested to hear about paperless tactics others are using!


ps. After all of that, in order to submit my PhD I had to print five hard copies of it – more than 1,500 pages!!!