The best place to start this discussion is with the software.
The ultimate application, I believe, is Papers. This application is presently only available for Mac. Sorry Linux and Windows users, but don’t despair – there is a way for you to accomplish a lot of the core features of Papers using a little workaround. I’ll talk about that in some detail a little further down the line.
The best way to describe papers, at least the outward element of it, is that it looks sort of like iTunes. I’ve heard other, similar comments from people, or seen it written in forums, after I had noticed it myself. No canny observing here, to be sure; it just looks like iTunes. So, now that you know what it looks like, the only place to go is into the guts.
Papers, in short, allows you to catalog all of your scientific papers into categories of your choosing (it accepts any .pdf you give it, but its core functionality is aimed at this particular type of interest. Nerds. It’s made for nerds.), and each article can be copied from the main library into as many categories as you’d like. This is a beautiful beginning, and it’s only the most basic feature of the application. Going into all of what Papers has to offer is well beyond the scope of this post. I’d rather talk about what did the job for me.
Papers has a full screen view option, which offers some standard functionality of its own, such as the option to view pages side-by-side, continuously, et cetera. The real winning element of the full screen mode is the ability to call up a text-editing window that is automatically attached and associated with the document you’re reading. When you exit full screen, the notes you’ve taken appear in the “Notes” tab, located on the right-hand side of the library navigator. I’ve attached a screen shot of this, and you can see a screen shot of the full screen mode, with text editor, in an earlier post (“Papers for Mac”).
This is how I wrote the vast majority of my literature review. I knew, roughly, before reading each article where its contents would be referenced in my dissertation. Based on this, I would create a heading right away in the text editor to let me know where I should be putting my “notes.” As I went through, I might add other headings if I found information that was germane to other portions of my document. So, I might have a main heading for “History of Symptom Validity Testing,” based on the primary content of the article, and then add a section for “Critiques of the definition of malingering,” if I found something like that within the same article.
When I said earlier that I was taking “notes,” what I really meant was that I was actually writing the text as I wanted it to appear in the final document. I would include any relevant stats, previously cited material, and so on, as well as placeholders for where I wanted my parenthetical citations to go in the final document (I used EndNote for my citations and references, an application with which some of you are no doubt familiar. More on that later). Here’s the real coup: I read, and read, and read (and read, and read…), writing my sections from each article as I went. When I wanted to feel productive, or at the end of a particularly long day of reading and writing, I would go back to the day’s articles, click on the “Notes” tab, highlight what I had written, and start copying and pasting straight into my dissertation. Few things are as satisfying as seeing five or ten pages of text suddenly appear in your document in one fell swoop. Few things make you feel like you’ve accomplished some part of a Sisyphean task.
So, that is, in a nutshell, probably the biggest part of how I was able to streamline my writing. No longer did I have to sift through stacks of articles and try to interpret my rantings and thoughts (see Post 3 – Scribblings of a Mad Man). I had cogent and cohesive paragraphs and sections, all at once. The only thing I had to do with them was edit and re-order later on. Since they already made a lot of sense, that part was laughably easy.
Be sure to check back later, or look for a tweet from me for my next post. In it, I’ll be discussing the integration of Papers and EndNote, as well as how to use EndNote’s functionality to create a facsimile of some of Papers’ core functions (for all you non-Mac users out there). Thanks for reading!