Stay up to date with research using RSS feeds of relevant journals

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It has become increasingly difficult to follow the recent developments in any field, as thousands and thousands new papers are being published each month. Still, part of the researcher’s job is to keep an eye on progress is her field. Many academics, young and old alike, struggle trying to find some way to manage this flood of information. Lazy afternoons in the library spent digging through printed editions of scientific journals are long gone. We live and need to survive in a very modern world now.

Fortunately there are tools that can help us to surf this wave instead of drowning in it. The one that I personally favor is RSS.

RSS stand for Really Simple Syndication (nowadays it is also called Rich Site Summary) and it is a feed that provides a content of a website in a standardized format. Multiple RSS feeds combined together in an aggregator application (reader) or service allow to combine and search through information from multiple websites. This makes very easy to follow favorite sources of information from a single access point. Yes, it sounds a bit like Facebook, but RSSes predate social media and you keep full control on what shows up in your information feed.

The RSS feed for a research paper typically includes title, publication date, journal, full names of all authors, and an abstract. All that is necessary to quickly evaluate if the paper is of any use. If yes, the link will take you to the publisher where you will be able to download the full paper (assuming that you have access). Very fast and convenient.

There are several RSS feed readers, but my personal tool of choice is Feedly. Mainly because it can be configured to resemble ever-to-be-missed Google Reader. Every position can be saved, shared by email, saved to Pocket, Evernote, or to one of many popular services.

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As the journal feeds are refreshed often, be aware that the amount of new publications can be overwhelming. Every couple of days few dozens of new papers show up. I follow just six journals and got notified about over a hundred articles every week! Of course not everything is relevant nor interesting. Depending on your area of expertise and interests, you should probably ignore majority of them. Actually, to stay sane you MUST dismiss most of them. Do not forget that this tool is here to find new things that are relevant to you, not to stay aware of everything that is being published! It is simply impossible.

As the number of unread papers will quickly become unbearable, it is easy to feel anxious. It is similar feeling to the one you experience while checking your overflowing email inbox or looking into that ‘PDFs to read’ folder on your desktop. So no, do not even try to read everything. Do not even peek into that abstracts. If you see that the title is not within your interests, simply mark it as ‘read’, forget about it, and proceed to the next position on the list.

Many RSS readers will provide you with a handy search tool. Search feature allows to quickly sweep through recent abstracts and authors to find whatever keyword interests you (unfortunately in Feedly it is available exclusively in paid Pro version . Very useful if you just want to check if something interesting showed up in last few weeks or if your favorite author published anything recently.

The process described above is specifically useful to stay up to date on what is going on in your field. This is not a good method to carry out a complex research for your literature review. Since you are only looking at the new stuff, the results will never be complete so sometimes you might miss something important.

The only thing that needs to done now is to read all those newly found papers, but this is a completely different story.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

Spring cleaning a.k.a. the seasonal purge of GTD inboxes

Spring cleaning a.k.a. the seasonal purge of GTD inboxes

University work never gets boring. It evolves continuously, so does the problems that must be taken care of. Every now and then, I set aside some time, think about my workflow on a higher level than usual, and check if the tools and methods that form my productivity system are up to the task.

The only thing that never changes is the fact that I rely on David Allen’s Getting Things Done in all my endeavors. The core principles of the GTD drive my workflow for years. I just can’t imagine how it is possible to survive without it.

When I sit down and think over underlying principle behind my workflows, the idea is to get rid of unnecessary clutter and simplify processes as much as reasonably possible. One of the most important aspects of efficient productivity is keeping under control all the points where the information enters your system. Frankly, at this point, life is way too complicated to keep and control just a single collection bucket or INBOX. That would be too much hassle, so I always use at least few. They all have to be regularly reviewed to keep things in order and up to date.

I just finished this year’s spring cleaning, so I can tell you a little about how my current data acquisition model looks like. Perhaps will find below some ideas to implement in your own productivity system.

Two types of INBOXes

The stuff can reach me through one of two categories of INBOXes: physical and digital. Physical inbox is simply a tray on my desk (one at home and one at work) where I put any piece of paper that needs to be taken care of. This is the old school inbox as described by David Allen in his book.

Digital inboxes are many, any relying on them is more complicated. Initially, I tried to build everything around a single digital collection bucket, but it didn’t work. There were many complications that slowed down the collection process. I decided to add inboxes for special purposes, which in the end brought me to five distinct locations dedicated to different aspects of my organized life. I combined them into two types: inboxes where people throw their stuff at me and inboxes where I control what kind of information enters my system.

So, lets take a look at the first category:

  • Email – most common and unavoidable entry point. This is the place where other people push information at me. I am regularly contacted by students, other researches, administration, etc. Email is necessary and requires constant review in order to stay under control. It is unlikely that I will ever get rid of email, but in some cases the number of emails can be reduced. This is why, nowadays, I rely on…
  • Instant messaging – Slack entered my life few years ago and made a revolution. We adopted it in our research team and basically got rid of our whole internal email communication. This is a place where my colleagues can always find me, question me, and send me requests for whatever they need.

In the next category of inboxes, I fully control what information enters my system. There are three kinds of inputs. They are complimentary and all play important role in my workflow.

  • Reminders – As the numer of my projects increased every year I needed to keep all of them under control in some kind of to-do system. The amount of information of enormous and very often, I have to be reminded to do something of to follow-up on something. In my case everything lands in OmniFocus, which is one of the best task and project managing application. Every time I need to write a reminder for some action to be taken in the future, it goes straight to my OmniFocus inbox. The principle is: every task must be actionable, thus it should start with a verb followed by some other information. For example “Buy hard drive.” or “Write summary of the Wang’s paper.” I also use tasks to organize follow-ups. Some reminders are there to notify me that I am still waiting for something and a follow-up is required. For example, “Waiting for the laboratory report.”. Whenever I consider to remember to do something, it makes a new task in OmniFocus.
  • Appointments – the second category of inputs. When a meeting is set I do not put the information to some inbox to deal with it later. Instead, I immediately create calendar entry, which usually takes 20-30 seconds and its done. In modern world, it would be extremely inefficient to create reminders about putting things in calendar. As David Allen pointed out, if something lands in your calendar, it must happen on a given time, or at all. Some people have calendars driven by their assistants or other people. That is also fine. For now, I prefer to set the scene on my own.
  • Other digital stuff – this category is the most important because it is the digital version of a traditional paper tray. Every scrap of potentially usable information, notes, photos, voice records, someday/maybe things (books to read, movies to watch, articles to skim, etc.), saved websites, everything goes right into this inbox. I will figure out what to do with it later. This is also the place where I delete most of stuff. Only limited number of things passes this check point and become resource materials.

This is how my set of inboxes looks like. It allows me to conduct the collecting phase in quite efficient manner. Five works for me, you might need more. It is good idea to keep this number to minimum because at one point everything will go through one of the above channels. It just need to work for you. So, what is your next action?

Photo by LudgerA on Pixabay.

Stay safe after the recent Facebook crisis (using Pareto Principle)

Stay safe after the recent Facebook crisis (using Pareto Principle)

Chances are that you already heard about the Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook crisis. If, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of fixing Facebook, you still have this creepy feeling of being exposed and manipulated, there are a few things that can give you at least some peace of mind.

So, what an ordinary user, can do in the world of dominating malicious corporations? Deleting all social media accounts could help, but it is an equivalent of nuclear strike. It may be easy for a teenager that wants to make a point, but those who constructed their businesses on social media may express some concerns.

We need to accept that social media are here to stay. Despite the fact that our concern about personal information is growing, Facebook will remain a very important part of our internet life. Whether we use it or not.

There are a few basic things that casual users can do to protect privacy. Let me tell you about the two tools that I always use on my computers. It is a great example of the Pareto Principle in action as these two methods are the effective 20% that produce 80% of results. They do not solve all the problems, but they significantly improve online safety.

The first thing that I immediately do after the operating system is up and running…

Modify the hosts file

Some websites are more dangerous than the others: shady pages with pirated content, malicious scripts, adult stuff, etc. There is always a chance that you will end up on such suspicious page. They pretend to be just another website, but behind the facade, harmful codes, spying scripts, and tracking cookies are hiding. It is very difficult for an average user to be always careful and aware, but there is a simple solution. You can prevent your computer from visiting such places by modifying the hosts file.

The hosts file is a system file that contains the lists of selected network addresses and assists in addressing network nodes in a computer network. It can be used to deny access to the dangerous corners of the net, block online advertising, or the domains of known malicious resources. The hosts file tells the system to redirect requests to another addresses that do not exist or are harmless.

Very elegant solution, especially if your machine is used by kids or elderly people that lack understanding how website content is manipulated to lure them to install spyware. The hosts file is used by system services on a very basic level. This means that not only browser, but other applications as well, will not be able to connect fishy servers. Many phishing emails will be rendered harmless as well.

Of course, the first step is to collect the list of dangerous domains. Fortunately, this work has been done already. Steven Black’s GitHub repository contains the hosts file made of 60-70k suspicious addresses. Even if your computer is otherwise unprotected, installing the hosts file will reduce the risk of exposure to malicious content. If you still use the default hosts file, just overwrite it with the one downloaded from GitHub. To learn how to edit the hosts file on Windows, Mac, and Linux, read this handy guide written by Christopher Welker (How-To Geek).

Install uBlock Origin

Once the hosts file is in place, the next step is to arm the browser with proper protection tools. The options are many, but I personally use and recommend uBlock Origin.

It is a free cross-platform browser extension for content-filtering (for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and more…).  There are many ways to use it. For example, I let my browser to access social media servers only when I visit their homepages. Neither Facebook nor Twitter will see the other pages I visit because I allowed their scripts only on a few selected websites. It is very simple way to reduce the exposure, but the learning curve for uBlock’s advanced features may be steep.

In the end, the combination of uBlock Origin and modified hosts file will do wonders. You will immediately notice the difference as many websites will start to load much faster and look cleaner. Still, the most important outcome is improved privacy, as you become invisible to most of tracking scripts and cookies.

If you truly want to embark on a quest for complete internet privacy you will need to learn much more. The great place to start is http://privacytools.io. It is very comprehensive information source that offers knowledge, advice, tools, and many advanced methods to improve personal privacy while browsing the internet.

And of course, even the best plugin will not make any difference, if you keep putting your private personal information on public servers. But it is another story…

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash.

Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

In order to survive modern college, both students and professors need tools that will help to deal with a huge amount of tasks and responsibilities. Luckily there are many applications designed to keep us organized, productive, and sane.

As many of students and academics, I rely heavily on my calendar. Setting it up and building up necessary habits took me years. Now, I can hardly imagine being able to function without its constant help. But calendar, despite being an essential tool, is not suitable for other things I have to take care of. That is becasue academic work also involves collecting and storing information, managing tasks and projects, outlining ideas and papers, and communicating with the team. Over time I simplified my toolbox down to five essential applications that help me to organize the whole process. Today I am gonna share with you the apps at the core of my workflow.

I need to mention that, as a long time Mac user, the software I rely upon is often exclusive to this particular platform. Still, you should be able to find suitable replacements on other platforms. Windows in particular offers many alternatives.

Collect and organize information

Evernote is the most powerful note-taking application I know. I’ve been its user since the very beginning and there is no real alternative. Yes, there are a few other competing , but no one offers such complete set of features that include (among many others) advanced search syntax, handwriting recognition (images!), and PDF annotation. Unfortunately, some features belong to the paid premium version.

Evernote is available on many different platforms and offers minimalistic web inferface. It is very easy to share notes with your colleagues or students. Very handy.

Despite being quite versatile, Evernote is not really optimized to be a literature manager for researchers. It can be used in such way, but is just not desinged to store thousands of academic papers in orderly manner. It is not only about notes. Academics need citation infomation, journal information, relation to other papers, ability to generate LaTeX citations, etc. All this can be done manually in Evernote, but there are better alternatives available. Personally, I use Mendeley. Thanks to its relationship with Elsevier, related papers search is fast and convenient. Mendeley allows me to manage a collection of few thousand research papers. Unfortunately, it started to evolve form a simple resource management system towards a communication platform similar to Research Gate. Nevertheless, Mendeley is the one resource manager I use for work.

Task management

OmniFocus is a task manager that is designed along the lines of the well known productivity system Getting Things Done, better known as GTD. The methodology created by David Allen, the world wide known productivity guru, is build on the idea of moving projects and tasks out of the mind to “the external brain”. Having handy and trusted list of projects and tasks takes burden out of our conscious. It allows to focus on the next necessary action instead of being overwhelmed by whole bunch of priorities and problems.

OmniFocus has been designed to be such trusted companion for your mind. Decade of development changed the application into a productivity monster. It is very intuitive tool for GTD enthusiasts, as it closely follows the main concepts from the book. OmniFocus comes in two versions: simple and professional. The killer feature that will make you longing for the professional edition is the ability to create custom prespectives. This is were OmniFocus truly shines as the GTD powerhouse.

The program works natively on Macs, so some of you might not be able to enjoy its features. Mac users are here for a treat, but it comes at a significant price. Good news is that there is substantial discount available for students and academics. There is no better choice for hardcore GTD practitioners.

Plan projects and write drafts

If you write or plan anything you need some kind of outliner. In another post I mentioned the importance of outlining before actual writing. Outlining application should allow you to create complex lists of things and then move them, edit them, collapse and group them. There are many applications that can do exactly that, including many free ones. So, if you want to try if the concept of outlining suits you, you can have a test run with Workflowy. It is a free outlining app that works in your browser (pro features come at price).

The application of my choice is OmniOutliner, very elegant and flexible. As it is in case of OmniFocus, OmniOutliner is native to Mac. Again, it comes in two versions: simple and professional. There are significant discounts for academics and students. Recently it became my main writing tool and the simple version is just enough for my needs. At least for now.  The outline and the draft of this post were also written in OmniOutliner.

Team communication

If there is one tool that substantially changed the way we communicate within our team, you guessed it, it is Slack. I grew up using IRC, so now having Slack as our main communication tool brings back memories. We just use is for communication, and it allowed us to get rid of internal emails. You can integrate Slack with almost all modern work tools, including almost all known cloud services. For example, it can be connected to Evernote and allow you to create or share notes with simple commands.

Honorable mention

There is one handy application that does not belong to my essential five, but I use it so much that is deserves honorable mention. It is called TextExpander and its sole purpose it to automate writing process. There are many recurring things that we have to write over and over. Try to think how many times you wrote you name and surname last week. TextExpander allows you to create a handy shortcuts (called snippets). Every time you write these few predefined sets of letters the application will substitute the correct long text in their place.

I started using TextExpander few weeks ago (the older standalone version), so there is a long way before I develop proper writing habits. Still, I already feel the difference, and so will you if you try this usefull little tool. As in case of almost all software for Mac, the conviniece comes at price. So, next time you plan to treat yourself (upcoming birthday?), you might want to consider TextExpander.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

Effective memorization

Effective memorization

Planned repetition and interaction with the material is the key to memorization. Human memory is unreliable. If not maintained, large amount of information stored in our brains will become unavailable. It will not disappear completely, but recollection will become difficult. Fortunately, understanding the process of forgetting allows to slow progressing deterioration of memories.

The first person who conducted a study of human memory in an organized way was the professor of psychology Hermann von Ebbinghaus. In 1894-1905 he was lecturing at the University of Wrocław (then Breslau). In the process, he memorized sets of nonsense syllables and tried to recreate them after pre-defined period of time, e.g. hour, day, or week. His results led to creation of the forgetting curve that visualises how information “evaporates” from memory over time. Apparently, after 20 minutes almost 50% of material gets forgotten. On the next day, about 60% of memorized information flees. After a month, less than one-fifth remains!

Ebbinghaus was a pioneer, but his methods were disputable. He used only one memorization technique and a single subject – himself. Yet, modern research on memory and information recollection confirmed his conclusions. It is now commonly accepted that planned and regular repetitions allow for effective learning. In principle, repeated studying followed by repeated testing allow to store information in a long-term memory. These two activities, though similar, are fundamentally different.

Repeated studying – Repetitions greatly impact the long-term preservation of memorised material. Re-learning fills the gaps that arise over time, which is precisely the reason why regular repetitive sessions are so important. Actually, the first re-learning session should take place the same day the initial study took placeEvery evening it is necessary to set aside some time to review and repeat everything that was studied earlier on that day. Just this one activity, regularly repeated, will significantly improve our ability to learn and memorize. Repetitions should be then scheduled for the following days: the first on the second day, the next one a week later, etc. It is good to experiment a bit to find the optimal time intervals as they depend on the individual predispositions, but also the amount of material to master, the amount of free time, etc.

Repeated testing – one can repeatedly learn the same material in the hope of remembering it, and after a while it will most probably happen. It turns out that it is not a repetition, but it is the activation of memorised information that stimulates the process of perpetuation. To take advantage of this fact, we shouldn’t just review our notes, but rather attempt to use and reflect on the knowledge as much as possible. Repetitive study sessions should be enriched with variety of tests. For example, as often as possible rewrite your notes from memory. Also, with your own words, as detailed as you can, summarize the contents of the article, lecture, or book chapter you are trying to master. When you’re done, compare what you wrote from the memory, with a source material or your own earlier notes to see how much you’ve successfully reproduced, then fill the gaps during the next study session and take another test.

It is important to make study sessions a combination of both described methods. As reported in [1], simple repeating of the material (re-learning) is not enough. Only frequent activation and testing of memorised information allows to store it permanently in the long-term memory.

Sources:

  1. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Henry L. Roediger III, The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning, Science vol.319, No. 5865, February 15, 2008