Thursday, February 3, 2011

Work Smarter, not Harder

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about productivity. At a talk last week, a friend & fellow Fellow with the National Library of Medicine gave an enjoyable talk entitled, "Work Smarter, not Harder." In it, he outlined a few key areas where researchers can improve their efficiency & streamline their workflow. There were about 25 of us present, so as I waited for him to get started, I was excited to be able to discuss my own opinions of productivity & workflow management with a fellow enthusiast. I'm the sort of person who loves The Container Store. I walk by Storables, & they pretend to be closed. So I both enjoyed his talk for the information he covered, as well as for the camaraderie I felt, seeing someone discuss a topic as close to my heart as productivity & organization. When he reached his last slide & opened up the floor for a question & answer time, I was surprised to see that he had clearly touched on something that resonated with each person there. Five minutes became ten, which in turned stepped aside for twenty, & soon we were completely over time & needing to yield the room to the next group (spuriously?) claiming to have it reserved. It wasn't so much that others shared my interest that surprised me, rather that it was clear we had all spent time thinking about ways--either technological in nature, or otherwise--that we might increase our productivity, particularly regarding reference management.In my opinion, it is only in recent years that reference managers have moved from a necessary evil to being software that can actually help you to stand on the shoulders of giants, as it were. Let's learn a bit about ourselves through some word association:

Me: What do you think of when I say reference management?
95% of you: EndNote.
Me: Good. Very good. EndNote is a very popular reference management system.

Me: What do you think of when I say reference management?
95% of you: EndNote. & terrible, terrible headaches.
Me: Good. Very good. EndNote is a very popular reference management system that is one of the most common causes of academic-related headaches. Here, have some Ibuprofen.

To me, EndNote, along with the Microsoft Office entourage, occupies the difficult (if lucrative) position of being used because everyone else uses it. Rather than conforming to one's workflow, it forces one to adopt what it thinks is the best way to write manuscripts & do research. I said as much, in an email conversation between graduate students in OHSU's Biomedical Informatics program (DMICE) that had begun shortly after the end of my friend's talk.

I lambasted EndNote for its mostly-absent APIs, & its rigid adherence to an ancient idea of what it means to have a workflow. What I didn't realize, though, was that at some point earlier in the email thread, someone had inadvertently cc'd all DMICE distance students on our conversation. & I hit reply all.

Fun fact about DMICE: we have a substantial distance learning program. Thanks, in large part, to the work of our Department Chair, Dr. Bill Hersh & his passion for extending Informatics education to new populations, there are lots of DMICE students. Like, several hundred. The email backlash I received from the gaggle of Informaticians was...startling. &, based on my accidental, if informal, survey, I can tell you with a reasonable degree of certainty that a many academics both use & hate EndNote.

As an Informatician & all-around Psychology geek, the fact that people both use & hate a bit of software fascinates me. Has EndNote talked people into service contracts, preventing them from using other reference managers? There are, of course, any number of perfectly reasonable explanations for why someone might hold these seemingly disparate views: perhaps they don't know of any other alternative, maybe their employers require them to use it, perhaps the amount of time & energy they've invested in making the software work for them & their workflow is such that making a switch, at this point, seems unrealistic. Dr. Hersh, a long-time EndNote user, falls into this last category. "I am an avid user of EndNote," he said, "but part of my reason for that is that once you get down the road like I have, with three books, a couple hundred scientific papers, years of teaching materials, etc., it is very hard to switch." Dr. Hersh, rather than cautioning new members of the academic community from using EndNote or encouraging toward it (although he does say that EndNote is one of the few things he does with a computer that actually save him time), he has different advice. "Select an option carefully. You might be stuck with it for a long time."

Dr. Hersh is exactly right. Early in one's career, it's important to examine the research workflow one is creating for oneself--be it the software you choose to help you, the way you organize your data for long-term management, or how you go about literature searches. These are all common--even essential--components to a successful career as a Research Scientist. & yet, they are so rarely scrutinized. An Excel spreadsheet of data becomes two, two spreadsheets become a handful, & sooner than you'd think, you an entire directory of 100 ambiguously-named files, one of which contains information you need. Maybe all such situations can't be avoided entirely, but I propose that the majority of them can, by simply making intentional choices about the way you do work. Sometimes work is hard, but the smartest way to work is by making sure all the hard parts are science-related.

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