Research tools: how to choose

Last week, I talked about different kinds of tools you might use for research. Today, I’m going to talk about how to choose tools.

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

Where will you use it?

This is one I think about a lot.

Some people do all of their research work or personal computer work on a single machine. I am not one of those people.

I work on a Mac at home (I’ve been a Mac user since … well, before there were Macs, technically, I started on an Apple IIC.) I have specific software I use on my home machine – Scrivener for long-form writing. I use Aeon Timeline mostly for fiction projects, but I know people use it for historical research as well. (It is an excellent and detailed timeline application.)

But some things I need access to on multiple machines. I want to be able to pop a note into my to-do list if I think of it at work, so I can follow up later. I want to be able to dip into my personal email (that’s fine at my workplace, within reason).

My work machine is a Windows machine.

I could bring a personal device with me. In my case, that’s an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard: it has the iOS app version of Scrivener on it among other things. But the wifi is unreliable in my office, so it’s often not usable. Even for writing on breaks, that’s not ideal, because I need to be able to sync files, and keeping up with the syncing at home would take a fair bit of time and attention. I may want to check something that’s sitting in my email, and not scroll through a lot of text due to the small screen size of the phone, or have easier access to search tools.

So for me, I want tools that have at least some option for web access, even if I also use a specific application on my computer or mobile device most of the time.

You may well make different choices, if you only need to access your work in one location, or you have (and regularly carry) a laptop. Or if you’re regularly doing work in places without reliable internet.

Make the choices that work for you, reevaluate as you change jobs or technology, to make sure they’re choices that still work for you.

Backing up

One of the very first questions you should ask yourself about a tool is how the information is backed up, and how you can get information out of it in a format you can refer to or (ideally) transfer to a different tool. You don’t want your critical material to be held hostage by a company going out of business, or lose material because you have a computer failure.

The actual issues are slightly different – you may have no warning of a computer failure (or someone stealing a laptop, or any of a number of other things): your ideal is continuous backups. That means a copy on your computer itself, a copy on a separate medium (external hard drive, USB drive, etc.) and probably a copy in the cloud (among other reasons, this means that if something happens to your physical location – fire, flood, tornado – you have a copy somewhere else.)

If you don’t want to trust the cloud for some reason, is there a friend who lives in a different region of the country who you can mail a copy periodically? (Cheap USB drive, files burned to CD-ROM, etc.)

How specific and exacting you are about your backup plans will probably depend a bit on your technology setup, a bit on how critical the files are, and a bit on how good you are about manual process things like sticking something in the mail.

Me, I have a copy on my computer, the critical files sync to Dropbox, and I periodically pull copies onto a separate drive (I usually leave mine at work, for a backup in a sufficiently different physical location.)

If you are working on something that you absolutely can’t recreate in a timely manner (like a dissertation or all of your research notes for multiple years) you want to be more attentive to your backups than writing you do solely for fun or emails to a friend. (Those are great to back up, and they can hurt a lot to lose, but they probably won’t derail a significant part of your life for months or years if you lose them.)

How do you get information out of it?

The other side of this question is making sure you can keep control over your information and research, no matter what happens. So long as you’re regularly using software or a tool, you should have at least a bit of warning before a site or tool disappears (though sometimes it can happen nearly overnight!) It’s good to get in the habit of pulling an export regularly.

There are a couple of different considerations with exports.

It’s often easiest to pull a copy that has all your information, but not in a format you can stick into another program easily. For example, it may be easiest to pull a copy of your material as a PDF, but you’d need to do some wrangling (possibly with some specific software) to get the text out easily. VoodooPad, an application I use for keeping personal wiki-type information (where I can link to other pages in the document) will let me export in a number of formats, but I may lose formatting and some connections between files.

Knowing what your options are in advance, and picking the best options for your current needs is usually a good way to go.

What format should you save things into?

Good question. The formats that will absolutely save the core of your material (but may lose formatting, connections between files, or ‘about this work’ type information) are plain text and csv files for spreadsheets. (CSV stands for ‘comma separated values’ which means that each column is separated by commas. You can often set a different character, if your actual data may have commas, and then tell the program you load it into what you picked.)

A slightly more complex option for text is RTF or rich text format. This will save much of the formatting for you, but it may add glitches or not include some specialised formatting .

Saving files in widely used formats – such as Microsoft’s .docx or .xls formats – will often work too, but again may add some additional material or leave some things out. (Microsoft formats are sort of notorious for bloating files with a lot of additional formatting data that can cause problems on import.)

Sometimes you may have the option to export as an HTML or XML format – usually this is an option for linked pages, like a website or wiki. These formats should preserve the links between pages, and you can access them by opening the file on your computer as if it’s in a web browser. (And from there you can save the material into other formats if you need.)

Thinking about how you might want to use the information if you need to resurrect it is usually a good indicator for your best format.

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