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Preliminary Notes

Workflow Design Solution for the Junior Researcher

By Rebecca Cober, Stian Håklev, and Lixia Lin

Knowledge Community

Our design will address the challenges and opportunities faced by the junior researcher. Although our primary objective is to develop a workflow solution that will enable a graduate level university student to become more organized, efficient, and productive, we hope that our design will be generalizable to all students, including those at the secondary school level.


Challenges faced by the junior researcher

The junior researcher undertakes many difficult tasks throughout the lifecycle of the research process. These challenges include the dilemma of how to effectively organize a growing collection of electronically formated articles, the problem of how to efficiently acquire accurate citation data to match to these articles, and the question of how to aggregate and organize highlighted text, notes, email correspondence, tweets, and ideas. Although it is easier than ever for students to build their personal libraries of academic papers, and to share ideas through social media, the sheer volume of information can be distracting and overwhelming. Staying focused and on track, at the same time as strengthening connections with colleagues to further research interests, can be a challenging task.

Existing solutions

Currently, there are many resources available to the junior researcher that help to facilitate these tasks. For example, Papers uses an iTunes like interface to aid in the organization of a student's electronic library. SciPlore is the first software tool that allows users to organize PDF and metadata using mind maps. A unique feature is the ability to add manual reference keys on the fly. DevonThink is a so-called "everything bucket" which lets you easily capture, store and organize PDFs, notes, and other files relevant to your research. However, there is no one solution that addresses all of the requirements of the junior researcher. Most graduate students have assembled a suite of software and social media tools that allow them to accomplish their research tasks.

Mindmapping tools can help the junior researcher to conduct research such as literature reviews and case studies. These tools support better understanding and interpretation of the research materials because they allow researchers to keep track of ideas articulated through brainstorming sessions. Potential areas of study which are overlooked or obscure can easily be identified and organized. To more fully interconnect and interrelate ideas being discussed, the tools facilitate the synthesis of raw data into coherent arguments, and allow authors to prune erroneous points from body of research, to unify and emphasize the main point, or to balance elements in a harmonious fashion.

Proposed solution

Our goal is to propose an integrated design solution that addresses the knowledge management challenges faced by the junior researcher, at the same time as encouraging the exchange and growth of new ideas among colleagues. We are calling our design idea "Researchr."

Related knowledge media themes

  • Knowledge building
  • Social media

Knowledge media used

  • Junior Researchr - fictional software
  • Social Media tools
  • E-mail
  • Google Scholar
  • Electronic academic journals and publications

Design Process

Our investigative approach has been twofold: first, we wrote a future scenario of what our dream workflow solution looks like, and second, we researched and tested existing software solutions. By writing a future narrative, we were able to think deeply about the features that are most important to us for our solution, and it helped us to imagine how these features could be seamlessly integrated together, see appendix 1. Similarly, by considering the strengths and weaknesses of existing software solutions, we were able to experience first hand how software can transform workflow.


For our final design solution, we have created a diagram that provides an overview of our proposed integrated workflow solution and we constructed a screen cast showing highlights of our ideal workflow scenario.

Proposed Integrated Workflow Solution

The following workflow is visualized below:

  • Scholars obtain PDF files through a variety of channels directly into Researchr.
  • A digital fingerprint is taken and sent to a server; metadata is identified, downloaded and matched to PDF file.
  • If files do not have an online fingerprint, metadata can be added manually. This information is uploaded to the server, and is of benefit to all scholars in the learning community.
  • Many researchers add highlighted text and notes to their digital files. Researchr collects and organizes these annotations, and facilitates sharing them with other researchers.
  • Researchr uses visualizations to show the connections between papers and their authors, helping the researcher find new relevant papers.
  • Researchr uses visualizations to show connections between highlights, notes and emails enabling the researcher to dig deeper to explore new ideas.
  • Researchr makes recommendations for articles based on the scholar's past history and the connections that have been made by other researchers within the learning community.
  • Researchr uses a seamless and integrated approach, combining notes, ideas, and references, making it a powerful authoring and citation management tool.


We decided to show a part of our ideal solution through a video. We created a screencast using ScreenFlow, and interleaved this with some video footage. The screencast was created using four different applications: Papers, DevonThink Pro, Tinderbox and Skim, which all embody some of the features that we would like our ideal system to have. Through editing, we made the four programs seem like one integrated program, and simulated functionality that does not exist.

The video can be seen here.

Appendix 1

A possible day in the life of a junior researcher using "Researchr"

After walking, feeding and watering the dog, I grab my laptop bag and head out the door to my local Starbucks. My tall black Italian Roast coffee in hand, I open up my laptop and connect to Internet using Starbucks' free "wireless for everybody" service. With some bemusement, I recall how Starbucks used to be one of the only places I could go to work, but now with improved wireless transmission, it is possible to access the Internet nearly everywhere, even in Toronto's subway system.

I check my inbox. Twelve new emails. Not too bad. I quickly scan them - only seven are related to my academic work. Four are notices that a bill has been paid or a service has been renewed. I have all my bills set up to be paid automatically – bookkeeping has never been my strong suit. One is a personal email from my friend Rob, reminding me to finish the drawing I promised him for his wife's fiftieth birthday scrapbook. I'll do that tonight in front of a Ted Talk or something. Researchr, the academic workflow program I use for nearly all my research tasks, will recommend a video that will be current and relevant to my work.

The academic emails take a little more time to process. Three are related to a workshop I attended yesterday. The workshop facilitator has posted some photos from the workshop on her blog. She wants us to stay in touch and continue to comment on the research ideas that we presented at the workshop, through her blog. I click on the link in the email, and a dialogue box from Researchr asks me if I want to add it to the list of blogs I am following. I reply, "Yes." Whenever something new is posted, the facilitator's blog will go to the top of the list. I have all of the blogs I follow organized this way. Blogs most closely related to my research interests appear higher on the list, as do blogs that I visit the most often. The last email is a link to a paper that one of my collaborators thinks is relevant to our research. I click on the link. I am prompted by Researchr to indicate whether or not I want this link added to my project workflow space. I select the project we are working on, ironically "The Future of the Academic PDF", and the link is connected to the project.

Next, I check my Twitter feed using my web browser. There are links to a couple of items of interest. One of the links is to an article in Wired magazine that looks promising. As I skim the article I see that it is related to the research I am doing about using social media tools for learning. There is an icon for Researchr in my web browser which allows me to select the project space I want to connect the web page to, in this case Social Media Enhanced Learning. The other link of interest is to a YouTube video on using Web 3.0 tools in the classroom. This is an item of general interest, and not related to a specific research area. I click the Researchr icon again, and this time select a project workspace I call "Cool Stuff." Researchr allows me to schedule in breaks, so if I set a minibreak for one hour from now, a prompt will suggest that I watch an item from the "Cool Stuff" workspace. Researchr will only play approximately five minutes of the video at a time, fading off at a natural break in the video. During my next break, if I choose to continue watching the video, the video will resume from 30 seconds before it ended the previous time.

With my email and social media tasks complete, I launch Researchr. It prompts me to log in, and I provide my academic account name and password, provided to me by the university. I will be able to access all the journals, proceedings and online books that I am interested in. Articles that I have indicated I want to add to the program will be automatically downloaded to the appropriate project workspace.

The Researchr interface is uncluttered and clean. I select the "Tasks" icon and a list of about 15 projects drops down. Three are active, as indicated by their bold text.They are also organized by urgency, so the project with closest deadline appears at the top of the list. I choose the item at the top of the list, "The Future of the Academic PDF" and a window opens up that covers half of the desktop. I am able to "scrub" through all of the research papers, website pages, digital sticky notes, and mindmaps that are related to the project. This gives me a visually rich overview of the work that has been done on the project so far. I select the "Documents" view; only PDF files and Word documents are visible. I want to read the paper that my colleague sent me this morning. I select the "Most Recent" view and the paper has already been downloaded and is ready to read.

This PDF has already been opened by my colleague, and his version of Researchr inserted the correct metadata into the metadata-field of the PDF, so my program automatically recognizes the correct citation, and it will now show up when I browse by author, journal, title, etc. But I also have a number of PDFs that a colleague handed me on a USB stick. These have typically useless names, such as "301434.pdf. I import them all to Researchr. It does a two-step fingerprint matching with its online service - first comparing the checksum of the file, to see if anyone else have tagged that exact file before, and if that doesn't work, it creates a checksum of the text contents (similar to It successfully identifies four of the files, downloading the citation data and shared annotations. Two files are not recognized. It does its best extracting information from the PDF, and suggests two hits from Google Scholar that look similar. I correct it, and click "OK". Now, the metadata has been written to the PDF (so if I e-mail it to anyone, it will automatically be imported when opened in Researchr or another program), and the fingerprints have been uploaded to the central server.

I take a sip of black coffee from my white porcelain cup. The PDF document has several layers attached to it. If I want to, I can make my colleague's highlighted text and annotations visible by clicking the eye icon next to her name. I decide to keep her comments turned off for now. Instead, I choose to click on the cloud icon, and a cloud tag for the entire document appears beside it. This gives me a quick overview of the article's key concepts. I wonder if cloud tags can be used to analyze interview data?

I decide to switch tasks for a moment. I click on the "Notes" icon. I can see an overview of my drawing board that contains clusters of images, 3D drawings, notes, emails, documents, and web pages, organized by topic. I zoom in a little and find "Research Methods." I select the "Tweet" icon, and write "Cloud Tags - A Viable Method for Analyzing Research Data?" I might as well get feedback on this instead of keeping it to myself. Researchr will tweet my question. If anyone responds to the question, I will be notified during my break time. As a researcher, one of the greatest challenges I personally face is procrastination. My scheduled breaks allow me to have some control over distractions.

I click back on the "Tasks" icon, and the PDF I was reading is open to where I left off. I continue to read the article, highlighting and making comments as I read. When I am finished reading, I switch the "Read" toggle to complete. I know that all my highlights and annotations will be visible to my colleague.

A text box pops up saying it is time for a break. I am informed that there is a response to my Twitter question with a link to a relevant article. As I scan the article, I am excited by this adjunct method of analyzing data! I click the Researchr icon on my browser and add this page to the "Research Methods" cluster in the Notes section. Before starting to watch the YouTube video on Web 3.0 techologies in the classroom, I get up and go for a free refill on my coffee (having paid with my registered Starbucks card, of course!).

I have to rush to a meeting, so I go outside to wait for the streetcar. My computer has automatically synced all my recent articles to my Kindle, and as I stand waiting, I continue reading some of the articles my colleague gave me. I highlight some interesting passages, and add some quick notes. I see others doing similar things on their iPads and Nooks. Luckily, these days most PDFs also contain alternate ePub versions of the article, making it easy to read on both small and large devices. When that is not the case, my software allows me to quickly mark up a PDF for reading on a smaller device with a few clicks, and this is then synced to the central server, and made available to everyone with the same file.

I have lots of time to read on the streetcar, since there was some construction on College and Bathurst. Finally back in my office, I am ready to do some writing. On my laptop, all the highlights and notes from my Kindle have already been synced. These highlights can be seen when I browse the original article, but together with the general notes I made on the article, they are also searchable. I create a smart folder that gathers all the notes and highlights I have made that reference the word "metadata", and I quickly go through and add the "metadata" tag to a few relevant highlights that don't specifically use this word.

Now I switch into the mindmap mode, and am able to visualize all the snippets and notes I took. I create some connections, move things around, and add notes. The program is constantly suggesting additional readings based on the connections I make, based on what my community has read, and the connections that they have made in their mindmaps (sharing this data is of course optional, but most people leave it on). I decide I have enough ideas, and begin to draft an article. While writing, I quickly drag and drop a few citations, which automatically generates the citations in APA format (and inserts the metadata in the Word doc, which will enable other people reading this article in Researchr to automatically download all cited articles).

Finally happy with a first draft, I click a button to push it to my blog. People interested in this topic will find my writings, linked directly to my mind maps and annotations. Hopefully I will get some useful feedback.

Relevant Literature

Hart (1998) discussed several mapping approaches which might be a useful starting point for thinking about how the mindmapping portion of our workflow tool could work:
Feature Map: Argumental structures which are developed from summary record sheets
Subject Tree Map: Summative maps showing the development of topic into sub-themes to any number of levels
Content Map: Linear structure of organization of content (hierarchical)
Taxonomic Map: Classification through standardized taxonomies
Concept Map: Linking concepts enables declarative to procedural knowledge (cause and effect and problem solving)
Citation Mapping: It is an interactive citation tree that displays both forward and backward citations. It shows the citation relationships between a paper and other papers. It allows users to organize and color-code the results by author, year, journal title, etc.

Important Links and Resources

Research desktop

Additional references:
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. London: Sage.

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