Research in the Digital Age, or, Am I Really Going to Write my Dissertation on my iPad? 1

While I know that there are a plethora of blog posts out there about research taking workflows I find them incredibly helpful and have picked up a few tips and tricks from them in the past. So I thought I would pay if forward, so to speak, and add my voice to the din on the off chance that like me with other posts, someone will read this and go, “that’s exactly what I need!”

I’m probably part of the last generation to grow up being taught the index card method of research taking while in school. I love this method. For those who don’t know it, Thomas Riley has a great description of the method on his blog. But, if you’re anything like me, you will quickly have a ginormous stack of index cards. This worked fine when I was writing a 20 page research paper in undergrad but beyond that, the method becomes slightly unwieldy. So, for the past few years I’ve been trying various other methods and programs for writing my larger, and more complex research papers. I haven’t found a system that helps me organize my thoughts quite as well as the index card method.

The closest I’ve come is a program called Scrivener, which I still use to write all my papers. It lets me chunk out sections of text and reorganize paragraphs, sections and chapters with ease. For a big project it allows me to work on individual sections without having a gazillion word docs that I have to keep opening and closing to remember what came before it or what I wanted this section to feed into after.  It lets you create outlines to quickly see the bones of a project and you can split screen the program to view two files at once. If Zotero is your citation management system of choice Ammon Sheppard has a great tutorial that walks you through how to use Scrivener and Zotero together. But for research taking Scrivener tied me to a laptop or desktop and their index card interface is more for summations, not full blown note taking. If you haven’t checked Scrivener out though, I highly recommend that you do so. I have yet to know someone who has used any other writing program once they’ve discovered this one.

Once I got my iPad I found an app called SimpleNote which is a basic text editor and synced with Scrivener. This meant I was no longer tied to my desk but I was still stuck using the “digital” method of copy and paste when I got to the point where I began to stitch all my notes together in my larger project. Another problem for me is that I’m a fast typer. Which means it’s easy for me to type out full paragraphs from a book and, even when I take the time to paraphrase and think about the content to put it into my own words, I don’t ever feel that I am interacting enough cerebrally with the information for it to really sink in the way it would when I was forced to parse out the information onto individual note cards.

And this is where my workflow stood until about a week ago.

Screenshot of my “Project” which is all the notes taken on a particular book

A routine Google search to see when Scrivener would be releasing a full iPad app version (the latest news is sometime in 2012 but nothing more specific then that) led me to a recently released app called IndexCard. Inspired by the cork board look of Scrivener the app is designed, you guessed it, to replicate the Index Card method. The interface is super easy to use and the app comes with a great tutorial to highlight all the features.

The best part: it syncs with Scrivener via Dropbox and you can sync your notes into the program in a variety of ways (you can also create index cards in Scrivener and export them into the app). You can either import them as index cards and shuffle them around the Scrivener cork board until they’re in the order you want, or you can do that on the app and then export a .rtf doc into Scrivener and do the digital equivalent of “type, flip” — “type, scroll.” This is great because now I won’t have to worry about keeping track of citations in text in Scrivener, I can just refer to the .rtf I based that section on, and go straight to using Zotero on the finished doc.

Color Coding and Changing Label Names

Another great feature is that you can duplicate your “project” in IndexCard so you can play around with the reordering of the cards without losing your original structure. You can also move notes from one project to another. This is great in combination with the color coding feature the app has which lets you assign one of fourteen colors to the index card that you can rename the labels for to keep your categorial/keyword methods straight. You can create new labels for each project or, if like me you will be using the same labels for almost all your projects, can set a default label list and load that. You can also group cards together into stacks so that if you have a section that you know you want to put together in a specific order, you can do so without it cluttering up your screen. It is quite a robust app that, for me, allows me to utilize my preferred workflow without having to lug around anything more than my iPad.

As I geeked out while using this app (which at $4.99 is a steal) I realized that in addition to taking research on my iPad, I might actually be structuring it on my iPad as well. My project might very well be the first dissertation ever written on the iPad and that’s an interesting thought. More importantly, I hadn’t realized how frozen I was in starting my research in my quandary of figuring out my workflow. The best thing about this app is that it’s made me confident enough to start doing my research, even excited to start doing it. And that, to me, makes this app priceless.

1 Comment So Far

Erin Bush says:

Great tips here, thank you! I’ve also been struggling with how to transform my complicated “Analog Index Card-Colored Post It” method into digital, so your app recommendations are very timely!


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