The Paperless PhD

This is the first (perhaps the last!) of a series of posts about the dirty business of doing a PhD. I may be running on fumes funding-wise in my writing-up phase but I do have the luxury of hindsight and I’ll be indulging that now. This was originally a bit of a waffle but I’ve managed to hack it around a theme: The PhD-drive.

Pretty much the first thing you are told to get stuck into when you embark on your course of research is reading. Lots and lots of reading. The stack of theses, proceedings, technical reports, etc grows a lot faster than the plant you brought at the freshers fair to add life to your desk (that’s what coffee mugs are for, anyway!).

If you are lucky, you’ll have at your disposal a filing cabinet; you should use it to store your sports/gym kit. A few bits of paper can be spread out of your desk and viewed together. A single report can be read and annotated on the train. Once any number of papers start to clump together they become inaccessible, unwieldy and will eventually overwhelm you. Even with a super-efficient filing system, the overhead of maintaining a physical repository of relevant resources is taxing. You need to minimise your reliance on it, treating it as a temporary luxury.

Fortunately, a lot of publications are now becoming available electronically. Proceedings are coming out on CD and papers and technical reports can be found from Google Scholar and CiteSeer. Sometimes you can even get pre-prints from a researcher’s homepage. This means, at least for technical fields, that the vast majority of sources already comes nicely bundled in PDF format. What’s the point of that, you ask, when you can decorate paper copies with highlighter and coffee-rings before tidily filing them under first author in your spacious filing cabinet? If this isn’t yet clear then go ahead and come back later. Even if you are super-organised, I would say there is a more efficient way to organise it all. Factor in the inevitable ‘who said that’ problem and we are scrabbling for an alternative.

My suggestion is to get a decent USB drive solely for the purpose of getting all your stuff together; we’ll call it the PhD-drive. For just a few quid you can get something that will contain everything you need (512Mb accomodates me fine). True, you can’t whip out your USB drive whilst sitting under a tree on campus and work – you’ll need a laptop for that.

Here’s an important point: having a laptop is extremely useful for working away from your desk but do NOT use it as a critical storage device. Laptops are liable to get nicked, broken or lost.

USB drives are much more robust and portable (neck or key-chain). This means you can be working in the lab, at home, at your parents. Moreover, you can put a plain text file at the top level of your PhD drive with your contact details and a promise a reward for return. Even better, permanently mark the case with your e-mail or mobile number. If you’ve backed up recently then you don’t even need to offer a reward beyond the degraded value of the device. A simple way to backup to your desktop is to use the old ‘Briefcase’ folder. Create one and then drag important folders to it from your PhD drive. Then, whenever you’ve changed anything you can update your backup with a couple of clicks.

My PhD drive contains (amongst other stuff):

  • Paper respository
  • PhD wiki (more later)
  • Master copy of thesis draft
  • Own publications and presentation
  • Code backup
  • Portable FireFox browser (master-password protected)

Beyond being a repository for papers, you can also use your PhD drive as your notebook for storing ideas, progress, memos plans, whatever. This has major advantages over a paper one:

  • Safer. Have you seen that episode of Blackadder with Dr Johnson’s Dictionary? How are you going to back up a paper notebook without wasting time in the photocopier room?
  • Portability. Paper is actually quite heavy. Even double-sided, multiple-pages-per-sheet can only go so far to lighten a thesis.
  • Speed. I type faster than I write and it’s far more legible.
  • Easily searched, editted and restructured. This reduces the probability of a Write Once, Read Never (WORN) model.

What format to store your notes? A naive approach would use a set of simple text files (or worse, Word files!). A infinitely better solution, in my humble opinion, is provided by whimsically-named TiddlyWiki.

I’ve raved about TW before and I won’t stop now. TiddlyWiki is single webpage (a HTML file) that contains slick javascript so that you can add, edit and restructure its content right in the browser without seeing any of the clever gubbins underneath. It totally rocks and is completely free. It can automatically create tidy backups, be uploaded as a read-only website, blah, blah. The learning curve is almost non-existent although people are always thinking of better ways to use it. You can write summaries of papers and then link directly to them. You can write daily journals of progress and issues. You can jot down ideas and connect them. Try it.

A quick summary…

  • Paper is for reading and for recycling. Have it with you or in the recycle bin.
  • Laptops are for working on, not for storage.
  • Get a good USB drive. Spend time organising it and back it up routinely.
  • Back stuff up routinely. This can be on your PC or Gmailed to yourself.
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Categories: PhD

4 thoughts on “The Paperless PhD

  1. Wow, this is pretty good stuff that may help a lot of PhD newbie’s. Spending a lot of time on that PhD then 🙂

    Seriously though, what you’ve discussed is a very personalised approach that won’t necessarily suit everyone. You’ve almost described a Zen like state of mind rather than a method of research that many (including me) probably won’t achieve in their lifetime. But there are lots of useful points – especially about how to handle papers.

    Reading papers on screen is no replacement for printed text (especially for those with imperfect vision), but there’s no need to file an endless number of printouts. There are probably a handful of papers ( or people ) that form a core of background for your work and by the end you’ll probably be able to recite them word for word.

  2. You think I’m more likely to lose my laptop than a pen drive?! I think regular backups to another machine is the way to go. Preferably another internet-connected machine.

    It’s a bit of a pain to lose all of my annotations when I discard the paper copy. I eagerly await “digital paper” that I can highlight and doodle on (and read in sunlight).

    My current problem is really synchronisation: I already use a Wiki (TikiWiki) on my web site, but it’s a real bind when I’m not at home and need to work offline. One solution would be to run a local MySQL server and TikiWiki install on my own machine, which would be fine, but how do I synchronise the databases (bearing in mind that occassionaly, somebody else will edit the online version)?

  3. Jon said “You think I’m more likely to lose my laptop than a pen drive?! I think regular backups to another machine is the way to go. Preferably another internet-connected machine.”

    You’ll see that I agree that regular backups to other machines are crucial. The point is where to keep your current version. If you have this on a laptop then you have to carry your laptop around with you to work, have the battery charged, etc. Perhaps I’ve just adjusted to an existance of surplus desktops and no laptop.

    I’d also be nervous about having to watch myself to check I was actually regularly backing up everything that I needed and not just making lazy, token backups. Using a USB drive forces you to keep everything in one place and makes backing it up very simple and obvious.

    Of course, this assumes I’m the only one to be messing with it. Otherwise it gets into server-based version control…

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