A couple of months ago I published a post called ‘Are you a piler or a filer?’ In it I compared my experience of going paperless to giving up smoking; I have been trying diligently for a year, but still print out about 50 sheets a month.
In response to my post Marek Martyniszyn (@Martyniszyn) sent me a long desccription of his working methods. Marek recently submitted his PhD thesis focusing on international aspects of competition law at the University College Dublin. For the 2012/2013 academic year he joined the Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies in the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where as a Senior Research Fellow he will be conducting research on the interface of competition and international law.
The document Marek sent me was very long and detailed. I have decided to publish in two parts because I think this is valuable advice for anyone in the process of giving up the paper habit.
Going paperless, or as I call it ‘working in digital’ is challenging, but the benefits are considerable, long-lasting, and exceed the costs of adjustment. Working digitally allows you to devote more attention to what is really important- ergo research, without having to actively manage books on shelves, folders in filing cabinents and footnotes on pages.
Most of my friends and colleagues claim working solely on screen a no go because a monitor offers such a limited working space. The right software allieviates the problem of limited working space, but does not solve it. When writing an article it is by far easier to be able to have in front of your eyes the papers and sources you are refering to. This is probably why desks of academics tend to get so covered with materials of all sorts.
Discussions surrounding going paperless usually focus on software, but I think the key is striking a balance between software and the right sort of hardware. One way to address the issue of limited working space on a laptop or desktop screen is to start using a tablet to view whatever article or other document you need at the time you are writing instead of printing it out on paper. This seems to work reasonably well for many people, but I don’t think it’s an optimal solution. I’m not against tablets, but I just think that getting one solely to use it with laptop is too costly and probably not as efficient as you think it will be.
Instead of a laptop & tablet combination, I suggest you try plugging in an external monitor set as an extended screen. Essentially this creates two ‘desktops’. You can write on one screen, while viewing sources you use on the other. I recommend getting a large, panoramic monitor and placing it in a vertical position, so as to be able to view the whole page of a document on the screen.
The key advantage in using a second screen is the ability to import text from the viewed source directly into the document you are writing. I found this alone gave me a major efficiency boost over using a tablet. It’s a small change, but makes a huge difference in practice: think about quoting, amending references and so on. This solution does not require data synchronization or reliance on cloud computing, which is the case with the laptop & tablet option.
For those readers unfamiliar with such an arrangement, I should add that plugging in an external screen generally does not require any additional software. Under Windows 7 in the display preferences you can easily select the external screen and change its orientation from the standard landscape (horizontal orientation) into portrait (vertical orientation). The mouse cursor can be moved between the desktops via the left or right edge of the given desktops. I found this smooth and unproblematic.
Mounting a screen on a stand is very simple. Most of the large screens on the market can be placed in a vertical position, but will not be equipped, by default, with a stand (a mount) allowing you to rotate it. You may need to purchase a stand separately; just make sure your monitor is compatible with such a stand (most are).
I went a bit further and plugged a second external monitor to my laptop. This is a slightly trickier exercise since laptops usually have only one monitor port, but it is by no means difficult. I had to purchase a special VGA-to-USB adapter. That is a small piece of electronics of the size of a thick mobile with two wires. I plugged one into my laptop USB port; the other was plugged into a rather old monitor (hence the VGA port, but of course there are adapters for monitors using newer ports). The adapter itself came with some software which I had to install.
The end effect is that I have been able to use my laptop and two external screens (see the picture to the left of my set up when I worked in Dublin), hence I ended up having three ‘desktops’. This greatly improved my experience of working in digital. I have my word processor on the laptop desktop, the source I was using at the moment on the larger external monitor in a vertical position, and my referencing software on the second external monitor. It all may sound a bit confusing, but actually it is very simple as you can see in the photo.
Using external monitors is a low-tech and inexpensive soltuion compared to using a laptop & tablet arrangement. At the same time I should acknowledge that the downside of using external screen(s) is that you will be limited to a particular location- an office, a library etc.- since you are unlikely to carry an external monitor with you (while you may carry a tablet). However, given that many academics tend to do most of their serious work in a single location, the lack of mobility might not be such a huge limitation.
Thanks Marek! I hope this post has given you some ideas for configuring your workspace. If you have clever ideas for making workspaces more efficient – paper free or not – we’d love to hear about them in the comments. You can, if you like, put a picture of your workspace on the new Thesis Whisperer Flickr stream.