Research Methodology #1:

by tommy.rousse

I do a lot of research.  I’ve been doing a lot of research since high school and I’ve gradually been cobbling together a workflow that saves me a lot of time, and even better allows subsequent research to build on work I’ve previously done. If programmers have codebases, researchers can benefit from knowledge bases.  Since I’m starting to work on a Master’s thesis, I’ve been putting some thought into how I collect and collate notes, quotes, and the assorted data that turns into papers (and sometimes journal posts).

Some of that reflexivity stems from the kind of research I’ve been doing, specifically into science technology studies and a focus on the materiality of knowledge studies. Some of it stems from having to teach others about research for the first time as a teaching assistant.  I’ll save the theoretical background for another day. Right now, I want to offer a quick solution to a problem I see people dealing with all the time.

When I read articles or books that I know will form the core of a paper later, I like to mark passages and then copy them down for future use.  In print, this often means sitting down and typing out long paragraphs— I’m a quick typist, so that’s not so bad for me.  Generally, I start off with a citation of the source, and begin each quote with a page number, followed by my comments in italics. When I get down to writing, I have a shorter summary to refer to, and quotable/citable segments of text to back up my argument. If I’m making an outline, I might copy these segments into the appropriate part and start writing my paper around that.

But now that many resources can be found on PDF through Google Scholar, I often copy and paste the segments I would have typed into a similar note-taking system.  The obnoxious part about copy/pasting from PDFs (when they allow you to do so) is that line breaks aren’t handled very well. At the end of each line on the PDF, a break is inserted.  When copied into a word processor, it ends up looking like this:

The above image is actually justified to both margins, to give you an idea of what the problem looks like.

Not only is this annoying on an aesthetic level, it has to be fixed before it goes into a paper. Otherwise those sneaky line breaks can seem fine if they more or less line up with the page margins, but when you add text elsewhere the screw everything up and make whoever is grading our paper think you’re a sloppy cur. Before I wised up, I used to go through (vigorously punching the arrow keys hither and yon) and delete all the line breaks so Word could automatically handle them.

For me, this kind of monotonous cleaning up after a computer program is a Dantean purgatory. How many man-years has academia lost to this kind of drudgery?

Then I figured out I could use replace instead. In Word, all you have to do is highlight the pasted passage with the offending line breaks, press Ctrl+F, open the Replace tab, and configure it like so:

The required code for a paragraph break is “^p” for the Find dialog, and a space (i.e. ” “) for Replace.  After replacement, the same block of text (justified) looks like this:

Since this is something I do a lot that requires a lot of keystrokes, I went ahead and made a macro to cut down further on time.

That’s a first look at the materiality of research— now if you’ll excuse me, that’s what I need to get back to!