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.

The academic summer is finally here!

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After several months busyness, today I came to completely different workplace. The quiet office. No one was waiting and there were no urgent things to do. I arrived at 6:30 in the morning, sat and waited… At the beginning nothing particularly interesting happened. Some random thoughts crossed my mind, but I quickly got rid of them by scribbling a few notes in a notebook. Took me a moment to consciously register that rising feeling I was waiting for so long. Quiet and peaceful solitude… the bliss of academic summer!

This is one of the most gratifying moments of academic life. The end of semester. Teaching is done. Grading is done. Administrative paperwork, well, shall be done soon. There are less disturbances, no students, no questions. The closest deadline is weeks away. Coffee cup steams on the table and a book is at hand…

The feeling lasted maybe an hour, as there were few appointments coming my way, and consequently several things I needed to prepare. Still, it was amazing!

I enjoy teaching immensely. Yes, occasional downs happen, but there aren’t that many things in life that can build you up as the interaction with a smart and dedicated student. The one that challenges your concepts and stirs your thoughts.

It is just that every semester is generally filled with a constant unstoppable noise. Sheer amount of people you have to deal with is sometimes overwhelming. To the point, where it gets difficult to memorize names, faces, obligations, tasks, etc. Most of the daily stuff morphs into an unrecognizable blur and students contribute to this buzz, as many of them has questions, problems to solve, issues to discuss. They need assistance and attention.

Suddenly, the summer comes… and it becomes unbeliveably  quiet. It is something that we all expect and long for. Still, every time it happens, it is a shock.

So yes, teaching is great, but for many academics no other experience compares to this magical end of June or sometimes July.

Happy summer holidays!

Photo by Luke Pamer 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.

How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

Recently, I was asked several times what is the COST programme about and if it is worth considering at all. This is not a difficult question to answer. I joined two COST Actions and it influenced the way I understand scientific networking and research collaboration.

Everything started in 2016. Together with Agnieszka, the PhD student that I co-supervise, we established collaboration with the ILK-Dresden. We learned that they are involved in something called COST Action.  Few months later, we were flying to Spain for the NANOUPTAKE Management Committee meeting and the first Training School. It was just the beginning of collaboration that resulted in research, internship, more training schools, conferences, and joined papers…

Well then, what is the COST?

Chances are that being a researcher in a European country you have already heard about the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). It is an EU-funded programme that helps to build and facilitate research and innovations networks. It is said that COST is Europe’s longest-running intergovernmental framework, as It was founded in 1971. Long before The Maastricht Treaty and establishment of the European Union as we know it today.

The networks funded by the COST Programme are called Actions, and there is a good reason for that. Networks often sit passively waiting for something to happen. Like a club that you join to be able to reach your colleagues only if necessary. COST Actions are more dynamic. People meet regularly and work together. They communicate, share knowledge, and solve problems… The COST (short from COST Programme) provides funds for all that networking activities: conferences, meetings, training schools, short scientific exchanges or other networking activities.

Joining the Action

So, what does it mean joining the COST Action? Well, I am currently a member of two. Both are huge and their aims are spectacular. Their topics are very different though, and my involvement is each of them is different as well.

The NANOUPTAKE aims to create a Europe-wide network of leading R+D+i institutions, and of key industries, to develop and foster the use of nanofluids as advanced heat transfer/thermal storage materials to increase the efficiency of heat exchange and storage systems. The members of NANOUPTAKE focus their research on various types of  nanofluids. Our own contributions are about properties of graphene oxide nanoparticles. We were able to observe some interesting things happening in a thermosyphon filled with this nanofluid. Research paper is underway. I will write more about it in a separate blog post after it is published.

The RESTORE (REthinking Sustainability TOwards a Regenerative Economy) is very different. Its goal is to affect a paradigm shift towards restorative sustainability for new and existing buildings across Europe. Here, a huge group of interdisciplinary researches is working on principles behind Restorative Sustainability, Processes, Methods and Tools for and Restorative Designs, and more. During the kick-off meeting, I volunteered to serve as a Science Communication Officer. It turned out to be a learning opportunity and, at the same time, a challenging adventure!

While being a contributor, you don’t have to change anything in your research activities. Well, almost… You can continue the research the same way as you’ve always done. The difference is that your work is now a part of a larger goal. As there is an audience to share knowledge and people to collaborate with, you will see your own research in a different way. You may suddenly find larger purpose!

This is a EU-funded project, which means that there are many rules to be followed. The structure of the COST Action, administrative procedures, reimbursements… everything is precisely explained in multiple documents at cost.eu website. For example, this is how you join an existing COST Action.

Being a part of the COST network can be leveraged in many ways. For example, you can use it to build consortium for H2020 grant. You can develop your PhD students by sending them to other institutions or laboratories for Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM). You can sent them for a dedicated Training School (all Actions organize specialized trainings), or perhaps some conference. All that can be funded from the budget of the Action (there are some limitations though).

Participation in the COST not only widened my horizons, but allowed me to meet incredible people from many countries. The experience is great, so I strongly encourage you to consider joining the Action and try yourself!

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.

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Teaching is very important part of academic life. It is a never-ending cycle of all-to-similar problems and questions. Yet, there is one teaching responsibility that stands out from the others, i.e. being an academic means supervising writing of theses.

Usually, the thesis is the most complicated and the longest document that STEM students have to write since enrollment. They may have written structured essays (with a proper introduction, discussion, and conclusion), but nothing even remotely as complex and demanding as a full academic text. For this reason, writing a thesis is a difficult task. Even more so if the author lacks writing and reading habits. Compiling 40-60 pages of an academic text can be a particularly daunting experience.

Still, the work needs to be done. So, at the beginning of every semester, I discuss with all my students how to start writing a thesis. Over time, I developed a system and guidelines that helps them to write at their best.

This post is not a guide how to write a thesis. It is merely the discussion on how I set up collaboration between me and my students in a way that improve their writing process. If you are a student, you will learn here about some tools and techniques that will improve your writing. If you are a mentor, you might find below a few ideas on how to organize collaboration with your own mentees.

There are three things that I always discuss with every student that wants to write his/her thesis under my supervision. We establish rules that allow both of us to work in coordinated purposeful manner. First, I ask them to ditch Word and learn how to write everything in plain text LaTeX. Second, we establish a plan for our collaboration (an outline). Third, we agree to have regular meetings to discuss progress and problems.

Write everything in plain text

There are many ways to write an academic text. Normally, the process requires a word processor. So, for a long term users of Microsoft Word, it will be a tool of first choice. I would like to encourage you to try using much simpler editor (any editor) that lets you write efficiently in plain text.  Microsoft Word, despite its powerful features, is a distracting writing environment. It shines in business context, but it might hurt your academic writing.

Your goal should always be “extreme simplicity” because in such raw environment you will stop worrying about fonts and start thinking about words. For academics, the tool of choice is LaTeX, and chances are that you already know what LaTeX is.

Have you seen any LaTeX document lately? I am quite sure you have. They are very distinguishable because of their elegant and professional formatting. Even incoherent and badly written report appears like a work of an expert. As the final document looks awesome, it gives its author emotional feedback and stimulates his writing process in a good way.  I noticed that since we transitioned to LaTeX, theses became better thought over and generally more interesting. Engaged authors write better.

There are thousands and thousands of written and recorded tutorials on how to write in LaTeX, so I will not dig deeper here. All answers you need are a single search away.

And if you are curious, my personal editor of choice is Sublime Text. Very flexible and with built-in “distraction free mode”.

Start with the proper outline

I am telling all my students what every writer understands intuitively: writing should always start with a plan. Writing a thesis is a project. Writing a book is a project. Every project needs a plan, in this case an outline that contains synopsis details of all chapters, sections, and sub-sections.

Regardless complexity of the topic, the structure of thesis is usually quite simple. Like any other academic text it should contain: introduction, several body paragraphs, and conclusion. Body paragraphs (typically chapters) discuss separate topics, provide supporting details, introduce examples, and end with conclusions. It is very important to think about the contents before even typing the first letter.

Having to write an outline forces student to think about his thesis as a whole. Down the path, this will make writing much easier because the goal will be clear. I found that thanks to completion of this simple task, students stopped asking what else they should write about. On the contrary, their approach is now more proactive. They often inquire if it is a good idea to add more content because they feel it will improve their work.

If the thesis involves making designs and calculations (all my advised theses do), I ask students to focus on the introduction and literature review first. For STEM students, writing is challenging, require grit and determination. Usually, they are not accustomed to looking for and reading of sources, taking and reviewing notes.

Meet often and regularly

Being a thesis advisor means having to meet with the student to discuss contents of his work. After few years, I came to conclusion that it is necessary to meet often. Single session doesn’t have to be long – my own standard is 30 minutes. But it needs to happen every two weeks. More often if necessary. It is not only about the progress. Usually, all a student needs is a little push and a dose of motivation. Encouragement is more important than any substantive help.

One thing that I try to convey during those meetings is that writing a thesis takes time. The text will have to be rewritten. Its quality is a function of how many times that revision happened. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is s**t!”. Who am I to disagree with the master, but in case of thesis this is especially true. This is just something we all need to accept. Sooner, the better.

At the end of every meeting we set the date and the time for the next one. The appointment is an effect of negotiations with a student. I usually propose a date (plus minus few days). She agrees (or not) and declares how much progress she expects to make. It works.

Few years ago, I started to send calendar invitations. Many students rely on modern organizational tools. It is very convenient for them, as well as for me.

The above described process is very simple, but it works. I hope that you find some inspiration in my methods and they will improve your own writing/advising experience.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.