Learning about Work Methods for Doing Scientific Work

McClary was an expert in writing long, complex programs in C. His method was to take a few days to absorb the design, plot out his approach carefully, and then implement his plan in a long stretch of sustained concentration. According to his colleagues, McClary took about three times as long as most programmers to come up with a first version – but his first try usually worked.
Source unknown

Work methods — especially related to doing creative work — are a long-time interest of mine. On Friday, I had the opportunity to do a workshop about work methods in science — a very difficult area of creative work. The focus was not on ‘the scientific method’ or statistical procedures, but on how they deal with other people (advisers, colleagues, etc.), finding topics, time and task management, finding, reading and managing literature, handling the writing and publishing process, etc.

I was interested in doing a workshop mostly because — after two presentations about the topic last year and the discussion that happened afterwards — I am convinced that there is much knowledge available in every scientific department. But unfortunately, this knowledge is often personal and unshared. It remains invisible because while we share products like papers or presentations, we rarely share how we got there or how we made the studies and experiments happen (only how they happened). A workshop might be a way to make this knowledge available and I was not disappointed.

Thinking about the issue now, I think there are at least three promising ways to share knowledge about how scientists do their work:


A workshop to which participants bring their own notebooks or other work materials (some work on paper) to share, talking about aspects where work is no problem and where work is problematic, is one way to share different work methods. I found the projector very useful to see how the participants organize their work — if they sit in one row (U- or V-form works best) in front of the projector screen, you can pass the monitor cable and they can simply plug in their notebook and throw their screen image on the wall.

Judging from last Friday’s workshop starting with an overview presentation that touches all topics is an interesting idea — if this presentation is short. Alternatively, it would be possible to integrate the participants contributions at the end of each topic — and if it becomes clear that a topic needs more time, refer to them after the presentation in one workgroup session dedicated to this topic.

Work Method Buddy

One great outcome of the workshop was that it became clear who uses which tools and who has expertise in specific tools. For example, one person uses Zotero and another person had tried it out some time ago. Both agreed to meet later and exchange knowledge on how to better use this tool.

This made me wonder whether it is possible to also achieve this without a workshop. It could be rather general “looking how another person works” by having a person sit in while another person works. Doing a screen capture would also be interesting — especially if the interesting parts are highlighted or the video is cut to these parts. But how to find out who is an expert in a specific tool? Here I think a “Research and Work Profile” would be helpful.

Research and Work Profile

Looking at a few researcher’s websites I was wondering whether websites might be a good way to show expertise in work methods within a department or institute. Most websites of scientists list research interests and products (publications, conference contributions, etc.). However, it would be possible to add some information to this site regarding the research and work profile of a scientist.

For example, my research and work profile could look something like this:

  • Discipline: Psychology
  • Topics: Mobile Media, Critical Thinking, Reflection, Work Methods, Research Ethics, Persuasive Technologyinformal settings (esp. Museums)
    • prior topics: Interest, Bookmarking
  • Methodology: Experiments, Experiments with Field Elements, Field Experiments
  • Statistical Methods: t-Tests, ANOVAs, Exploratory Factor Analysis, …
  • Time- and Task Management: OmniFocus, EpicWin, iCal(Mac, iPhone)
    • did try out: Paper Calendar
  • Literature Management: DEVONthink, Circus Ponies Notebook
    • did try out: Zotero, Sente, Papers, …
  • Reading Literature: GoodReaderon iPad
    • did try out: Sente, Papers, Acrobat, print-outs
  • Literature Notes: Circus Ponies Notebook (Topic Notebook)
    • did try out: Wiki (DokuWiki), print-outs, Circus Ponies Notebook (1 page per article)
  • Idea Management: DEVONthink, Circus Ponies Notebook
    • did try out: Wiki (DokuWiki), MS Access
  • Developing Ideas: Paper, MagicChart, Circus Ponies Notebook
    • did try out: ./.
  • Analyzing Data: MS Excel, SPSS
    • did try out: ./.
  • Writing: Circus Ponies Notebook (Content Outline), Scrivener, InDesign
    • did try out: MS Word

Each entry could be marked with whether the person is willing to show the use to others (e.g., in bold, see also “Work Method Buddy”) and whether it works well (e.g., in green). After all, a researcher might try out different ways to handle a task and the knowledge what did not work (and made it a showstopper) is also valuable. If you want to try out something and someone already had used it, this person might save you a lot of trouble and (in the long run) unnecessary effort.

Of course, programs and people develop over time and a program might now work differently or a person has changed the tools. In this case, a request to learn more about a tool from someone would be an impulse to update the website. The website could be restricted for internal usage (login, IP-range) and it would make finding a “Work Method Buddy” fairly simple. The website could automatically show other people who use the same work methods, show the different methods used and the people who use them in another view, and allows for searching for methods — not that hard with today’s software.

Where do we go from here?

So, doing the workshop was really interesting and helpful … but I wonder, are there other methods than the three described here? I wonder, how did you learn how to do work in science? Write me an eMail or Comment.


  1. Hi Daniel,

    I would like hear your comments on the note-taking application “Notational Velocity”.

    This seems to be very simple, light-weight application that can store as much information as we want to. Each piece of note can be tagged & cross tagged. To me it looks very good. I guess you will also like it – its a potential candidate in your above list of “work flow managers”.


  2. Hoi Nirmal,

    I haven’t tried it but it looks interesting. However, I am perfectly content with DEVONthink which could probably be seen as its larger brother. For just capturing ideas on the computer, I would use a simple text file (faster) and sort the ideas into DEVONthink or another collection tool. I would also be careful whether the program is future proof — if it’s a one-person program, is it available in the future when there are new OS and hardware requiring these new OSs?

    I don’t have time for an in-depth test at the moment (hello Coursera and there are a few eMails I’d like to answer but need time to research first), so I’d say make sure that you can export your notes and if that’s a given, try it out. It has to work for you 🙂

    All the best


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