Paperless Dissertation 10 – Peripheral Benefits of Taking the Paperless Plunge

This post gets back to an issue that I addressed early on in my chronicling of writing a paperless dissertation. Namely, that many, if not most people I’ve encountered are dubious at best when presented with the idea of giving up stacks of scribbled upon, highlighted, and unsearchable journal articles and drafts. Moreover, all of this paper does not afford them the quality of portability and/or accessibility. Wherever those stacks are, they’re likely to stay put, and are only begrudgingly ported from one locale to the next when circumstances mandate such a thing. If you have 100 journal articles that you are in the process of reviewing, you’re faced with lugging them with you in the car, or on an airplane, should you be taking your Thanksgiving (or other extended) break, but must still work. Without realizing it, what they’re really endorsing is not a tried-and-true research workflow, but a preference for entropy. That is, they’d rather have those stacks of paper with all of the aforementioned qualities.

To be fair, I realize that a hard copy of anything has certain benefits. Well, at least that’s the claim that stalwarts will make when defending their decision to continue using paper drafts and copies. A common argument goes something like this: “Paper won’t ever run out of batteries.” To me, this is like saying: “Birds won’t ever run out of gasoline. That’s why I continue to use Carrier Pigeons instead of the United States Postal Service.” To answer the burning question at the forefront of your mind: no, I don’t use Carrier Pigeons. I drew this parallel because both arguments employ the same logical fallacy. That is, they both try to distract you from the benefits of ‘Thing A’ by pretending ‘Thing B’ possesses a quality that it does not and cannot possess. Paper cannot run out of batteries. This is logically true, since paper does not afford the ability to be powered by any means, batteries included. The point of such an argument is to create the illusion that battery powered devices are unreliable because they have a finite source of power. While this is true, most of us don’t run into this problem, because we’re all acutely aware of the limited run time of even the most advanced batteries connected to the most power-efficient machines. Furthermore, while paper has its place, it has many of its own qualities that make it unreliable (can be lost, burned, thrown away, etc.).

Another benefit of using an applications-based workflow is accessibility to the files themsleves. I use two Macs (an older G4 PowerBook and a unibody MacBook Pro) for my work, and pretty much always have one of them with me. There are times, however, when I am without one of my machines. This is where online, or redundant backups, come in handy. I use four cloud server backups: Dropbox,, Cloud, and Droplr. Of these, Dropbox is my primary off-site backup solution. It not only backs up everything instantly each time I save a new document or add anything to a dropbox folder (or to a folder with a symbolic link within Dropbox), but sends it to my other Mac as well. Since I have Dropbox on both machines, I know that both of them are synced all the time. When I’m not in front of either of my computers, I have access to most of my important files (like this post) as long as I can get to a computer with online access. So far, this has been a Panacea for hyper-accessibility. This solution is not a new one, and is not the only one of its type. It is underused, though, as most people don’t keep even one backup of their important files, never mind two or three or more.
There are certainly other peripheral benefits of paperless technology. These are my favorites, and so I figured I’d hit on them first. I may post some more next week or later. If you have some favorite points of paperless workflows, please add them in the comments below!
Finally, I am (mostly) all moved in here in South Florida. Hopefully this means I’ll be getting back to some more regular posting. We’ll see, as my Internship begins on Wednesday!


5 responses to “ Paperless Dissertation 10 – Peripheral Benefits of Taking the Paperless Plunge

  1. Pingback: TD:D Blog Carnival: Volume 3, Edition 2 « To Do: Dissertation·

  2. I am with you on the paperless dissertation. I honestly just chose to not print everything for my generals exam (imagine the biggest literature search ever) just started downloading the pdfs onto my laptop and only had a few printouts. Some review papers, and some really tough to follow animal studies with lots of figures.

    I use adobe professional, which has a highlight feature, underline, circle, post-it, and text copying features. This had made it so much easier – the search-ability alone has been amazing. Knowing that I read somewhere about a certain idea, and putting a phrase in my search box and ending up with the pdf if amazing.

    But my choice is also because I have nearly 600 articles – i’m in the sciences – and need to read a lot but maybe not cite a lot – so there’d be so much wasted paper for a small section I need from each paper.

    I had never thought of using a cloud server/backup to access my documents when i’m away from my laptop, since i carry it everwhere I go. So that’s my next step, although I backup all of my documents every single day on a home external hard drive. No horror stories of losing all my work for me, thanks.


    • Hi, Katie,
      Glad to hear that you’ve adopted the paperless research/production way of life. It really is such an amazing thing once you get your personal system down. I’ve recently begun work on the publication version of my dissertation, as well as another pub to be submitted sometime early next year. It never ceases to amaze me how completely effortless the process is, from finding new articles all the way to a finished product. You raised another interesting point regarding the bulk factor. As a student of neuropsychology, I find myself constantly reading to keep up with the latest and greatest, and have also amassed an unholy number of journal articles (I just checked, and I’m presently at 697). There is no way I could have kept that many articles around in hard copy; .pdf files were the only option. There’s so much more to it, but it sounds like you’ve got it down. Oh, and yes, cloud backup is fantastic. Another benefit is that since ALL of my articles are on Dropbox, I can create a public or private link, and share them with as many people as I’d like. Pretty solid for collaborative research. Cheers!

  3. I’m also doing the paperless dissertation. After spending the weekend recycling old papers that I never found the time to organize (15 bags!), it’s apparent how wasteful it can be to do otherwise. I use Mendeley because my citations and notes are backed up online, for free. Recommend it highly!

    • A stack of journal articles really is a mess. On top of that, they’re prohibitively massive, and can’t be carted around. It’s pretty sweet to have everything accessible online, no? How is Mendeley working out for you?

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