How do you organise your research?
Are you organising your research efficiently? This question may come up more rarely than not, but it is something all researchers ought to think about actively. Are you organising your source material in the most effective way? Even if you have an amazing filing system (or lackthereof), it is always a good idea to bounce around ideas with your fellow researchers.
I recently chatted with Dr. Mart Kuldkepp, a lecturer at UCL with an original filing methodology. Quite unusual for a humanities researcher, Kuldkepp manages his research using many different types of software. As many of us do, he takes pictures of all his sources in archives, accumulating huge quantities of images. He first organises all his research by country, then by archive, and then by archive index number. Further, all of his archive material has been processed into PDFs and gone through OCR Reader software. On beginning a new project, he will start by searching through his folders of material using PDF XChange Editor. This software pulls out all the documents mentioning the searched keyword and creates a clickable user interface to jump to the pages in the different documents where the keyword is used. This makes it fast to gather all the old archive material for re-use in the new project.
As many of us who go into an archive armed with a camera or smart phone know–the amount of document photos you can accumulate in the two or three weeks–or even months! Is often in the thousands. You sigh and wonder what to do with 3000 images. Kuldkepp showed me a great way to deal with this issue: documents with text can be run through a OCR Reader. OCR is short for Optical character recognition. This type of software makes all your text-based documents text-searchable, and lets you train the software to read texts as well. You could potentially teach it to read human handwriting, but this would take a fairly long time.
Once a document, or set of documents, you have selected has gone through the OCR Reader, the programme will create a PDF or Microsoft Word document of the text.
As you can see, I am able to search through Adobe Reader for a keyword — handy, no?
The best software, which Kuldkepp recommends, is Abbyy FineReader. It’s one of the better ones on the market, as it is very good at reading documents with little manual correction. It is quick to install, and extremely reliable at processing images in bulk. It even allows you to adjust the text area the programme is reading, to correct for skew or trapezoid text from taking photos at an angle.
I tried other comparable products, but they were less accurate at reading text and made lots of typos which I had to spend a long time correcting. I forced myself to spend hours training the software to better read the characters, and it was a huge pain, with very little payoff. They were also not as good as FineReader at fixing text cosmetically.
Whilst I am not up to Kuldkepp’s level of research organisation and searching, I find it inspiring that he is able to categorise his research so efficiently. I have begun to use Evernote as a way to categorise my research material by topic. Further, I tag every note, making it easier to search through my notes.
Evernote now allows you to take a picture from a book, and it adjusts the camera to create a white background onto black for maximum readability.
Alternatives to Evernote for note taking and organisation include Google Keep and Microsoft OneNote. I like Google Keep, and it’s a good simple alternative to Evernote, but as other authors have said, “Google Keep is useful for those who just want to make quick notes and lists on the go and aren’t interested in creating a deep archive of content. […] Evernote is a better choice if you want a database of notes, lists and Web content” . All of these programs come with some built-in OCR functionality that is easy to use, but less customisable or accurate than dedicated OCR reader software.
As I hope I have shown, the question of how you organise your research should be an important part of the process. It is useful to ask yourself regularly ‘Is this taking too long, is there a better way?’. Most of the time the answer will be yes, but a little extra searching is often required. Indeed, most academics don’t have photographic memories, so organisation of research material is key. Behind all scholars is an efficient filing system and swapping filing system ideas with your colleagues will help both you and them become more effective researchers.