High Variance

Progress Toward Paperless

I love paper—wrapping paper, home made greeting cards, paper mâché piñatas, a good coffee table book, any Sabuda pop up book, origami, even (especially?) paper airplanes—it all makes me happy. And up until recently, paper played a big role in my workflow. I read a lot of research articles and generally, I would print them and write all over them. The act of taking notes forces me to engage and extract much more than I would if I were passively reading. These hand-annotated articles would go into my file cabinet so I could refer to my notes next time I read the article. I also grade about 100 student papers per semester and like to provide copious feedback. Since my work days are spread between two or three campus offices and a home office, my bag would get pretty heavy.

My writing process also involved a fair bit of paper as I would hand write almost all my first drafts. It just felt more comfortable than transferring my thoughts directly to a text file via keyboard, even though it meant eventually typing up those drafts and having a paper pad in my bag next to my iPad at all times.

Three things have happened that have allowed me to comfortably transition the bulk of my previously paper-based work to the digital world: iPad, cloud storage, and my new attitude toward writing. The iPad lets me bring my research library with me and read it as if I were reading paper. The screen and software are fast enough that annotation feels natural, and it’s far easier to read in a variety of positions and places than a laptop. The cloud (in particular Dropbox) lets me edit or annotate on any of my devices and have the results automatically synchronized with all my other devices without my lifting a finger. I love technology that works for me rather than vice versa.

My new attitude toward writing has nothing to do with hardware or software and everything to do with the fact that I’m just writing more. This includes blogging, writing handouts for classes, writing letters of recommendation, writing referee reports for journals, and even occasionally writing up my own research. I’m getting more comfortable composing on the computer through simple practice, and the fact that the bulk of my writing is low-stakes has made the learning curve bearable.

Reading and annotation take place mostly on the iPad in GoodReader. I’ve yet to see a pdf that it can’t handle and over the past two years the annotation features have become better and better. I’m still a little slower on the iPad than I am scribbling on paper with a red pen, but the advantages outweigh the current speed penalty. I don’t have to carry 300 pages of paper around. I don’t have to make photo copies of anything. I can distribute comments on papers via email as soon as they’re ready. Students don’t have to decipher my handwriting. And with practice I think I’ll get faster. There are (several) other pdf annotation apps for the iPad, but none of them (AFAIK) integrate as well with Dropbox. I can specify a folder and GoodReader will download all the pdf’s in it so I have local copies. Then, after I’ve made my changes I just have to press the Sync button and the modified files are uploaded.

The Preview app on the Mac has always allowed some pdf annotation, but with the Lion release, it became excellent. On a desktop monitor (or two), I can blow up the text nice and big in one window and still have room to see tables/figures in another. With a real keyboard and a healthy dose of keyboard shortcuts, I’m actually pretty fast at marking up a document. I’ve heard good things about Skim as a Preview replacement, and at some point I’ll give it a try.

For storage and searching, I use Mekentosj’s Papers app. It integrates with several online research databases (including ISI’s Web of Knowledge) and makes it very easy to slurp articles into my own libary. I’ve also had some success with having it generate bibliographies for my own papers. But at the end of day, I spend a lot more time reading and annotating with Preview or GoodReader that I do searching and organizing in Papers.

New writing mostly happens on a Mac. I continue to get faster at typing on the iPad and iPhone, but I’m still way more efficient with a real keyboard. emacs (Aquamacs to be specific) is my editor-of-choice (as it has been for more than 20 years now) but I’ve started using Mindnode for initial brainstorming. I’m not sure it will stick, but it is fun.

My work world has a lot less paper in it than it did 6 months ago, but I’m still not 100% paperless. What’s left is mostly scraps, but there are two things that I’d like to eventually transition:

  1. Old articles: I still have that big file cabinet full of articles with notes. Scanning them all or transcribing the notes would be a ton of work that doesn’t seem worth it. I could also just throw them away, but storing them is pretty cheap. And so for now they sit.

  2. Lecture notes: I don’t like to put everything I’m going to say on my lecture slides. I think it’s confusing when students don’t know when to listen to me or read the screen. Ideally, my slides just highlight the organization and important points and include the occasional figure, table, or dramatic photograph. I tend to have a bunch of written notes that go along with each lecture that I refer to while I’m talking or writing on the board. Slowly but surely I’m putting these notes into Markdown documents that I can refer to while I teach, but for now I have a lot of physical folders.

Mostly paperless has been great for me because my bag is lighter and I now have access to almost everything I need from almost everywhere. It makes sharing documents easier and I can index digital assets on multiple dimensions. Those debates about whether aricles should get stored by author or by topic or by project are long gone since it’s easy to do all three. Paperless is also great for trees because they can stay where they are soaking up sun and CO2 instead of being ground into pulp and mixed with smelly chemicals.

100% paperless is kind of like enlightenment. It’s extremely hard (if not impossible) to achieve, but there are great rewards for striving to get there.