The Conversational Rollercoaster

Read the Discourse Studies paper here:

Albert, S., Albury, C., Alexander, M., Harris, M. T., Hofstetter, E., B., E. J., & Stokoe, E. (2018). The conversational rollercoaster: Conversation analysis and the public science of talk. Discourse Studies20(3), 397–424.

bannerThe Conversational Rollercoaster is a new public ‘demo’ format for ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. I developed the format for New Scientist Live in collaboration with Loughborough and the CARM group in order to make it easier to explain EM/CA research in a public exhibition context. The idea is that you can take a live conversation – in this case provided by The People Speak‘s pop-up talk-show Talkaoke, and subject it to instant EM/CA analysis. What’s more, you can involve the public as analysts in a variety of activities – ‘being the data’ on the Talkaoke table, spotting interactional phenomena, gathering data, transcribing, analyzing and reporting findings on the ‘results wall’.

Ann Doehring
‘s very nice drawing of the process (in the tweet above) provides a useful outline of how it works – and how it can be adapted for other contexts. All the software, data, photos and other materials are available for re-use and re-development.

A full how-to blog post for those wishing to try running the format themselves will soon be available on my blog. Until then, check the blog post at for a description of the event.

Thanks to: 

The Conversation Analytic British National Corpus (CABNC)

captureThe CABNC corpus is a open-licensed project to create a detailed conversation analytic (CA) re-transcription of naturalistic conversations from a subcorpus of the British National Corpus amounting to around 4.2 million words in 1436 separate conversations.

The project aims to produce transcripts usable for both computational linguistics (CL) and detailed qualitative analysis, and invites CA transcribers to use (and re-transcribe) the data, then to re-submit improved transcripts to improve the accuracy of the corpus incrementally over time. The next phase of the project also involves creating a new transcription format: CHAT-CA-lite based on a best-possible compromise between Jeffersonian and the CHILDES project’s machine-readable, XML-transformable CHAT transcription format.

The project has been supported by Bielefeld University, in collaboration with JP de Ruiter and Laura de Ruiter and draws on audio data from the Audio BNC.

Three ways to make a literature review feel like hosting a good discussion

Academic reading should feel like having a great discussion amongst colleagues. But your reading habits may be making it feel more like listening to a long, uninterrupted series of lectures. This post introduces some techniques (and links to some tools and technologies) that might help make your literature reviewing feel more convivial. 

Talkaoke: Studio Session 58

A literature review process can sometimes feel like a long slog through endless academic monologuing. By the time it comes to your turn to respond (in writing) it’s often really hard to remember all the moments where, if you’d been talking to the authors, you would have nodded to show that you’d taken note, or butted in to ask a question, launch a criticism, or where you had a new idea based on an insight and felt the thrill of chasing down an idea together. Experiencing these moments are the reason we actually read academic papers: as an extension of academic discussion. However, it can be hard to remember this as you sit, pen in hand, taking notes on all the thousands of papers that may cross your desk as you read your way into some branch of the literature for a PhD or research project.

Over the course of my PhD, I developed the following set of approaches for making time to read in any situation – from sitting in the bath to talking a walk – and for making ‘actionable’ notes – based on the impulses I would have felt, at any particular moment in the text, had I been talking to the authors in person. I made sure I could access these notes conveniently later on, and in many cases, I used them as a starting point for following up next time I actually interacted with that person. These habits began to turn my academic reading into what still feels like a really useful, ongoing conversation.

These are the methods that work for me, and some specific software/hardware tools (which I link to, but won’t go into individual detail). You will probably want to adapt these for your own tools/workflows. The main point is to establish a consistent routine that you enjoy, and that can help your reading feel more like a good conversation.

1. Treat your reading list as if you’re inviting the authors over for a discussion

If you were inviting people to have a discussion, you’d be really organized about it. You’d keep track of who you’d invited, and you’d know how many people were invited and why. Also, you’d probably invite people who you suspected would have interesting things to say to each other. Take this approach with your reading list.

Here’s how I keep my ‘invitations’ organized, and make sure they’re kept up to date.

I have three ‘literature’ folders (which I keep in my Dropbox): ‘readme’, ‘papers_to_check‘ and ‘literature_repository‘.

  • ‘readme’ contains copies of a group of papers from my ‘literature_repository’ I want to read or re-read relating to some topic or (in sub-folders) a set of topics.
  • ‘papers_to_check’ is for new papers I’ve downloaded. They need to be named and given bibliographical information before I invite them into my ‘readme’ folder.
  • ‘literature_repository’ contains all my PDF papers and books, each of which has complete bibliographical reference info and (if I’ve read it) annotated notes.

Every week I add three recurring items on my todo list:

  1. process papers_to_check: look up bibliographical references, rename the PDF files (AuthornameYYYY-title.pdf), place them in the literature_repository folder.
  2. cue up new papers into readme: ‘invite’ anything that looks immediately relevant (or older things I might need to re-read) into the ‘readme’ folder.
  3. update the literature_repository: move read papers from readme back into the literature_repository folder. This bit is like cleaning up after the guests leave.

This procedure means I’m less likely to lose my notes, that I’m methodical about adding bibliographical information, and that I always have something relevant to read.

2. Use different tools and approaches for different kinds of reading

Read like you interact: in different ways depending on the context – from highly intensive and productive work-meetings to chatting with a jogging-buddy.

I notice myself doing three kinds of reading: reading while writing, dedicated reading, and casual reading on the move. I use different tools for different situations.

  • While writing, which is typically when I’m most focused on what I’m reading and how I’m going to use it, I use PDF-XChange viewer (under wine when on Linux) to read and annotate PDFs. It’s proprietary freeware, but I really like this tool. I’m not going to go into how to make PDF annotations in technical detail (I’ll assume you know how to do that). But find a tool that makes standards compliant PDF annotations. Since I’m at my desk, I’ll pull PDFs straight from my literature_repository (unless they’re already cued up in my readme folder), and I’ll make and use my annotations almost immediately.
  • While focusing (sitting down, reading with intent) I use EZpdf reader on a 2013 Nexus 7 android tablet which I bought for $100. I use Dropsync on my tablet to synchronize my readme folder with my Dropbox. I also use Swiftkey to speed up the annotation process using smart auto-completion algorithms that learn my often-used words and phrases. Although presumably most portable operating systems have good PDF annotation tools, I’ve found my setup to be a very good compromise of portability, price and reading comfort. When I add a paper to my readme folder, it gets synchronized with my tablet, when I update annotations on the tablet, they’re synchronized with my readme Dropbox folder. This post isn’t really intended as a technical how-to, but if anyone is interested, I can post a walk-through video of the set-up and usage process of my specific set-up that highlights some of the quirks of working with with EZpdf reader – and the workarounds I’ve found for them. If you’re interested – just ask!
  • While on the move, or while reading casually (maybe a first pass of a paper I’m not sure is really relevant yet), I don’t actually read in a focused way. Instead, I get my tablet to read to me using EZpdf reader’s text-to-speech function and IVONA voices, which really sound remarkably good compared to the default voices included with Apple IOS or Android. While it reads, if I hear something I am interested in, I can make an annotation as it continues reading, then return to that annotation later.  If I eventually decide to read this paper in a more focused way, or while writing, I have an actionable ‘hook’ from my first reading to return to.

What do I mean by ‘actionable’? That’s really the most important point to make about reading and taking useful notes:

3. Use action-oriented labels and project-oriented tags

One of the most important things anyone who facilitates useful meetings (and good communication in general) will tell you is to clarify action points and agendas.

When you take a note on a paper, write what it was you wanted to do when taking the note, and what project it related to. I have several action-oriented labels:

  • todo: The most important label – this reminds me to do something (look up a paper, change something in my manuscript etc.)
  • idea: I’m inspired with a new idea, somehow based on this paper, but it’s my own thing.
  • ref: This is a reference, or contains a reference that I want to use for something.
  • question: or just q: I have a question about this, maybe to ask the author or myself in relation to my data / research.
  • quote: I want to quote this, or it contains a useful quote
  • note: Not a specific use in mind for this, but it’s worth remembering next time I pick up this paper.
  • term: A new term or word I’m not familiar with: I look it up or define it in the annotation.
  • crit: I have a criticism of this bit of the paper.

I also use project-oriented hashtags for each research project/idea I’m currently working on. So if I’m reading a paper and it says something like:

“Something I want to criticize and respond to in my next article on some topic”

I’ll highlight that bit of the text, copy and paste the text itself that into a PDF annotation, and add a few keywords on the top:

quote:  “Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on some topic” #sometopic #someothertopic

Or this might spark the idea that I could collect other papers with this same opinion, so I’ll write myself a todo item:

todo:  look up other papers that agree with: “Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on some topic” #sometopic

This means when I search for my annotations I can extract all the ones to do with #sometopic or #someothertopic projects, I’ll find this one, and I’ll know I wanted to use this as a quote when writing, and that I should add something to my todo list for when I next go to the library or do a literature search.

I have a somewhat complicated and geeky way to extract and automatically label these action-oriented items using Docear – but you don’t have to use anything like that. The main point here is to remember to take notes as if you’re engaged in a great conversation with peers you enjoy talking to, and keep track of those impulses to take note of, or question, or reference something as you’re reading it.

Dance as interaction

Dances – like everyday physical interactions – are built from a constrained repertoire of possible bodily movements. It’s a useful activity to study because the performers, learners and audiences of dance can be observed managing the production and evaluation of movements specifically as dance.

This figure from a forthcoming paper on timing and balance in novice partner dancers compares how Jim stops dancing in a teetering upright position with how Paul stops in a more evenly balanced stance.
A Figure from a forthcoming paper on timing and balance in novice partner dancers. The figure compares how Jim (in green) falls over after ending a move in a teetering position with how Paul (in fuchsia) has a more balanced stance.

This presents participants with interesting and observable challenges. How do they move from dancing to non-dancing, and how do they show each other that they are making these switches? How do audiences decide when and how to applaud, and how do they demonstrate their sensitivity to particular parameters and relevant moments of evaluation during a dance? And what is distinctive about bodily movement that makes it function as dance?

This research forms part of an overall exploration of social/aesthetic practices and activities including learning, teaching, and performing dance, and body-oriented psychotherapies that involve people in doing and evaluating of dance movements. For example, Dirk vom Lehn and I have collected a large amount of video showing how novice  partner dancers learn during  workshops, and have been analyzing these alongside video of professional improvised dance performances.



  • Albert, S., & vom Lehn, D. (2018, July). Vocalizations as evaluative assessments in a novice partner dance workshop. International Conference on Conversation Analysis 2018, Loughborough, UK.
  • Albert, S., & vom Lehn, D. (2018, August). The First Step is Always the Hardest: Rhythm and Methods of Mutual Coordination between Novice Dancers. 113th American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA.
  • vom Lehn, D. & Albert, S. (2018, July). Producing ‘joint action’ in Lindy Hop Dance Lessons. Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction 2018, Lancaster, UK.
  • Albert, S. (2017, September). Assessments in the service of rhythmical closings. Presented at the 7th Language and Social Interaction (LANSI) Working Group Meeting, New York.
  • Albert, S. & Vom Lehn, D. (2017, July). Beginning to dance: methods of mutual coordination between novice dancers. Presented at the 7th Joint Action Meeting, London, UK.
  • Albert, S. (2015, November). Joint improvisation, choreography and social action in a musical partner dance performance. Paper presented at The Science of Joint Improvisation Meeting, CNRS, Paris.
  • Albert, S. (2015, June). Dancing through time and space. Paper presented at Revisiting Participation: Language and Bodies in Interaction, Basel.
  • Albert, S. (2014, June). Interactional resources and their use in learning the Lindy Hop. Paper presented at the 6th Ethnography and Qualitative Research Conference, Bergamo.
  • Albert, S. (2014, June). Interactional choreography. Paper presented at the 1st EMCA Doctoral Network Meeting, Edinburgh.

How to share large amounts of research video data with Syncthing

Syncthing Logo

Syncthing Logo

One of the major logistical problems facing researchers who use large audiovisual data files featuring recordings of human subjects is how to share it with colleagues simply, securely and inexpensively.

  • By simple, I mean that the a/v file-sharing solution should not need specialized equipment or an expert systems administrator to set it up for you. Most universities and research institutions have in-house research file servers. These may be security audited, up-to-date and well-organized – they may seem unlikely to suddenly lose or delete all your data or randomly restrict access to your colleagues in other institutions. However, in my experience, it’s best to manage your own data and backups!
  • By secure I mean that it should not rely on cloud-hosted storage (which may store and transfer data anywhere in the world), or allow data to be transferred unencrypted between remote systems. This is often a requirement of UK human subjects/ethical approval – so it’s particularly relevant in the case of UK educational institutions, but this is probably also true elsewhere.
  • By inexpensive I mean that it should not cost the end-user an ongoing fee, or meter use per gigabyte stored. Commercially available cloud file-storage services like Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive or iCloud are relatively cheap up to ~ 1TB storage, they can get quite expensive beyond that, and if you have multiple projects with multiple researchers in different groups sharing data – the total cost for all researchers can become prohibitive.

There are trade-offs between these three requirements – this blog post outlines how to use Syncthing – which I think is an optimal solution – to solve this issue.

What is Syncthing?

Syncthing is a file synchronization tool – much like Dropbox, but it is peer-to-peer, which means it works like Bittorrent or other file sharing tools that do not require a central server-based system to share files.

A client-server model (left) and a peer-to-peer system (right)
A client-server model (left) and a peer-to-peer system (right).

Why use Syncthing?

Firstly, Syncthing is an open source, peer-to-peer file sharing system, which means it is relatively cheap, simple to set up and secure. It is especially good for sharing very large files and collections of files without having to pay or to trust an intermediary to maintain a centralized file server. You run Syncthing on your computer, the person you want to share files with runs it on theirs, and you can set up folders that will synchronize files automatically when both your computers are turned on and connected to the internet. The data is encrypted in transit, and never sits on someone else’s server. Syncthing only requires each user to have a normal computer or laptop, rather than running on a server with each person using a ‘client’. This is more secure, and probably less complex to set up and maintain.

Secondly, Syncthing is open source, under active development and compatible with all major computing platforms because inevitably people will use Mac OSX and Windows, and sometimes *nix. Syncthing is one of many open source tools relevant for educational contexts, which are not only cheaper for individual researchers and teams, but also tend to stick around for longer.

Finally, Syncthing allows each user to choose how they want to organisze their folder structure. Whereas Dropbox uses a standard ‘dropbox’ folder, and (by default, at least) forces everyone use the same folder structure and folder names for their files, Syncthing allows you to put your data wherever you want on your hard drive, but still choose it as a folder to synchronize with your colleagues. So I may choose to put my video file in a folder on my Linux machine here:


while you might have your videos on your windows machine at


A third colleague may store video on their desktop (tut tut) on their Mac at:

/Users/user/Desktop/video files/video1.m4v

We can all then use Syncthing and choose to synchronize my ‘/video1/video1’ folder with your ‘\project1\videos’ folder and our colleague can synchronize with their desktop ‘video files’ folder – so despite us all having different data naming schema, we can collaborate effectively, share files, and keep our own file systems organized in a flexible and personalized way.

For many years I’ve used Dropbox but I’m always running out of space, then having to weed out awkwardly placed or duplicated files from collaborative projects which may or may not still be used or needed by collaborators. So this feature of Syncthing is a huge selling point for me.

What is Syncthing not so good for?

Syncthing is not particularly good for synchronizing millions of small, regularly updated files. Syncthing monitors which files need syncing by scanning its folders every few seconds to find out what has been updated – this can be a bit processor intensive if you have hundreds of thousands of files to scan through. So, it’s best to use it for projects with a few thousand large (especially video/heavy data) files rather than projects with tens of thousands or millions of files. For the same reason, if you need the files to remain synchronized in (close to) real-time, Syncthing’s folder scanning process will probably take too long.

Syncthing is not great for always-online files. Because it is a peer-to-peer system, Syncthing requires the computers you are keeping in sync to be online at the same time for syncrhonization to take place. Dropbox, by contrast, uses an always-online server, so it doesn’t matter if your multiple computers running Dropbox are online at the same time or not – the server will make sure they all have the most recent version of your Dropbox files. So, if you need something always-online, better to use a server-client system like Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud etc.

Syncthing is not particularly useful on smartphones/tablets. Finally, although Syncthing does have an Android client and an iOS client, these are not officially supported by the same developers who work on syncthing, nor are they going to work if your computer is off-line when you need to grab a file via your mobile syncthing client.

Installing Syncthing

Syncthing has excellent, up-to-date documentation that will guide you through the installation process. However, there are also several helpful videos that will help you install Syncthing on different operating systems. I couldn’t find a video about how to install Syncthing on Mac OSX, so I made one myself.

Installing Syncthing on Mac OSX (with Homebrew):

Installing Syncthing on Windows

Installing Syncthing on Linux

Setting up and using Syncthing to share data

If you want to learn how to set up Syncthing for special purposes, and you want to explore all the options, I recommend reading the documentation, and if you want an in-depth video guide, I recommend the Nerd on the Street guide to setting up Syncthing. However, for a quick-start video, once you’ve installed it, I’ve created a short video that shows you how to use Syncthing to keep a folder in sync between two computers with the simplest set of default options.

I’ve used Mac OSX (el capitain) in this video, because I think it’s actually harder for most OSX users to understand how to fill in the Folder Path options (the location of the folder you want to sync) when setting up Syncthing for the first time. It’s relatively straight-forward to find Folder Paths in Windows and if you’re using Linux, I expect you’ll already know how to do that.


One major issue I’ve seen people having when running Syncthing for the first time is getting Syncthing to run at startup automatically. Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to deal with application startup issues – I’m happy to offer advice with this if you leave questions in the comments after reading the documentation.

Another major issue I had to deal with was cross-platform file-naming issues (especially for Mac OSX users). Basically, different file systems (FAT32, NTFS, exFAT, UFS/+, ext2/3 etc. etc.) allow different kinds of file names. If you are synchronizing folders between different file systems (on external drives, system hard drives, different operating systems etc.) it makes sense to use very conservative conventions.

I recommend the following:

Alternatives to Syncthing

There are many alternatives – some of them look very interesting, but none of them fit all the requirements outlined above as well as Syncthing. I’m open to adding to this list – so if you have a solution that isn’t shown here, please do let me know.

Finally – a very good solution, with minimum fuss or technology is to just copy your files onto small external hard drives and snail-mail them to each other in well-padded mailing boxes. That’s often a simpler (if slower) solution than setting up one of these systems!

10 best practice tips for your research/portfolio website

Spectrascope facilitation cards

I just ran a 2 hour workshop for the Media and Arts Technology Doctoral Training Centre using a variant of the Spectroscope Facilitation method during which 10 people showed and discussed their researcher / artist / technologist portfolio websites and gave each other structured feedback. After the show & tell session, each of the participants went home with 27 prioritised ‘todo’ advisory notes written by other participants to improve their own websites. However, one of the most useful outcomes – that I’m going to share here – was a set of 10 best-practice tips derived from each participant writing down what they really liked about each other’s sites.

Spectrascope facilitation cards

These are neither comprehensive, nor all compatible with one another – and I certainly could take much of this advice to improve my own website, but anyone thinking of setting up and academic / personal / portfolio site might find these useful. The most important question for anyone to address with their website was to ask who and what is the website for. Is it a CV to convince potential employers in academia, or to appeal to ad agencies, or to attract artistic commissions? Once these central questions were answered, the following tips could be used to improve each site.

  1. Prioritise clarity and coherence.
    • Make a clear statement of who you are and what you do in plain language – right up front.
    • What is the website for? If it’s basically a CV, use the word ‘CV’. If it’s a portfolio, use the word ‘portfolio’. Shape the expectations of the visitor so they know what they’re getting.
    • Add this information to the title/metadata the homepage, so the title bar (and Google’s web crawlers) read e.g. “Name, Job description, Purpose of site”.
    • If you have a lot of projects to show, put a selection of only the best/most targeted to the purpose of the site on the front page.
  2. Foreground your main activity/role.

    • If you have multiple quite different audiences/purposes in mind for your site, consider making multiple sites.
    • However, it can also be useful to show multiple facets of what you do – if one is a minor activity and the other a major activity, combine and show a richer combined picture.
  3. Keep it current.
    • Make sure you can update it easily, reduce friction by choosing technology that you enjoy using.
    • Show what’s upcoming – tell people what you’re doing next.
    • Avoid showing out of date information by e.g. not using temporally-relative wording ‘this year’ etc.
    • Keep your CV rigorously up to date and centralised (i.e. don’t have Linkedin profiles or freelance CVs sitting out of date around the web). A good hack for this is to use a Google Doc that you update regularly – and link to a PDF-downloadable version of it from your website.
  4. Show people where to go.
    • Show as many of your menu items as you can all at once – don’t hide menus behind fancy dropdowns or multiple click-throughs.
    • Optimise for ‘fewer clicks’. Try to make everything on the site only one or maximum two clicks away. The most important things must be one click away and immediately visible on the homepage.
  5. Get a domain name.
    • Buy your own domain name. It costs almost nothing and it mostly looks more professional.
    • It’s also more future-proof, i.e. if you buy and point it to a wordpress site, or a squarespace site, or a cargocollective site, but then change where you host the site, you can take the domain with you. If you relied on – you’re stuck with wordpress.
    • If you can, use short urls e.g. or – this is relatively portable (as above) so you can change which software you use to produce your website without being tied to software-specific page names and urls.
    • It’s good to have your own domain for email (especially if you’re a freelancer – less an issue in academia where people use institutional emails). However, be careful not to use vanity emails like to sign up for core services. Here’s why.
  6. Use a nice photo of yourself doing something.
    • It’s good to show something about yourself – but try to show yourself doing something relevant to the style and purpose of your site.
    • You might want to use a widely identifiable gravatar so that your website is visually identifiable with your social media profiles/comments from around the web.
  7. Use relevant copyright notices.
    • As long as you’ve created your website, whatever you publish is legally yours whether you add a colophon with a ‘©’ symbol or not. The symbol is just there to advise people on how to use your content.
    • If you are an artist with lots of great visual work – which unscrupulous people love to use without permission – say how you want people to use it.
    • If you want people to spread your work and give you credit, use a license such as the CC-BY – or use the CC0 option if you want to put your work in the Public Domain.
  8. Offer alternatives to audiovisual content.
    • A few images work as well as a video, sometimes better.
    • Consider using a simple explanatory animated GIF so people don’t have to download a whole video. 1
    • Always consider people with low bandwidth, small screens, out of date browsers. Responsive designs are easy these days with lots of great templates available for most website/blogging engines or just HTML5 templates.
  9. Enhance your ‘findability’.
    • Add a list of hardware / software / techniques / approaches used for each project. This shows what you can do, and it helps people using Google to find you and what you know about.
    • In general think of your site as a dragnet for people to find you. It’s much better to be found than to go knocking on people’s doors – so think about who do you want to find you.
    • Use analytics – you should know how people see your site, where from, and which pages they visit – it helps you make decisions about how to change and update it.
    • Link to your social media/other platforms from your site and vice versa (linkedin, twitter, github,, researchgate, your institutional sites etc.)
  10. Show people who you are.
    • It’s amazingly important to care about your web presence these days – make it reflect who you are, what you care about and believe, and make it unique. Of course this also means being critical, self-aware and careful not to project those bits of yourself that might undermine the purpose of your site!
    • Sometimes a web 1.0 site at an address like is a good way to show who you are – if you’re an academic in engineering or computer science. Go with that, engineering academics who are looking to hire you will recognise you as one of their own.
    • A really beautiful, unique and intriguing image of your work – or a great video or poem can be a wonderful hook into an art or design-focused site. Intrigue people, then reward them with more eye candy and carefully thought through information.
    • Show your network – link to others, make sure to credit all collaborators and link to them, they’ll appreciate it!

These are somewhat general tips. There was also a lot more technical advice in our email thread about this workshop, as well as some advice on which website services might be useful. Some of those links are included below – but any further explanation as to what to do with them is well beyond the scope of this post!


  • WordPress – either as a hosted service – or self-hosted on your own server. If self-hosted, beware! It can be tricky to maintain and has had lots of security problems in the past.
  • Squarespace – looks easy, but it’s pretty expensive for a simple portfolio/website.

Intermediate/advanced: (thanks to Victor Loux).


Thanks to Toby Harris, Victor Loux, Daniel GabanaJacob HarrisonJulie Freeman, Laurel Pardue, Raphael Kim, and Betül Aksu for presenting their works in progress and giving great feedback.

Update 7/18/2016:

Travis Noakes suggests (see the comments section below), using a unifying visual metaphor that brings together your website, your visual presentations and even the binding of your thesis. Travis’ excellent research blog uses the “+” sign to do this and is well worth checking out as a great example of a researcher’s site that integrates his description of his roles and foci with the site’s navigation and visual communication. He also suggests using Google’s Blogger platform for enhanced google juice and ease of use.


  1. A good tip on this from Victor Loux: If you’re considering using a GIF to show a specific interaction in a project, also consider that GIFs can be several megabytes big if they’re wide, as well as being lower quality (limited to 256 colours and less fluid). The trick I’ve used for my website (the ‘PeDeTe’ project) is to actually use a <video> element that acts like a gif (autoplay, looped, and no sound); for the same video length and same resolution, it reduced a 4.8 Mb (!) GIF to a 395 kb mp4 file. Most modern browsers support it and you can certainly find/make a polyfill for older ones. The only downside is that iOS will refuse to autoplay it, unlike GIFs, so that’s just not a viable option if mobile is really important.

Rhythmical coordination of performers and audience in partner dance

What can audience members’ embodied, rhythmical movements tell us about their experience of a musical dance performance? And what do their responses reveal about the composition, organisation and production of the performance itself?

Saul Albert, Rhythmical coordination of performers and audience in partner dance. Delineating improvised and choreographed interaction, in "Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa" 3/2015, pp. 399-428, doi: 10.3240/81723
Saul Albert, Rhythmical coordination of performers and audience in partner dance. Delineating improvised and choreographed interaction, in “Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa” 3/2015, pp. 399-428, doi: 10.3240/81723

I wrote a paper that focuses on how partner dancers and audience members move together during an improvised social dance performance. The central finding from this paper is a proposal for how we can draw empirical distinctions between improvised and non-improvised (or choreographed) movements.

This important distinction – which if you think about it, is very difficult to describe in theory – can be made in practice by tracking how participants deal with moments where the rhythmical coordination of (in this case) the audience’s clapping, the musical structure and the dancers’ joint movements seems likely to break down.

The paper then proposes a way of developing this form of analysis using a model of temporal patterning derived from biological systems.

FIGURE 2. Visual depiction of the proposed definitional framework, from Ravignani, A., Bowling, D. L., & Fitch, W. T. (2014). Chorusing, synchrony, and the evolutionary functions of rhythm. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1118.
FIGURE 2. Visual depiction of the proposed definitional framework, from Ravignani, A., Bowling, D. L., & Fitch, W. T. (2014). Chorusing, synchrony, and the evolutionary functions of rhythm. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1118.

This approach, combined with analytical methods that are more often used to study conversation and human interaction, shows how researchers can explore the communicative uses of rhythm as a situated interactional resource, and find out, in specific cases and styles, how people build sophisticated social meanings through embodied interactions.

The whole paper consists of a single case analysis of a 10 second clip from a now-classic Lindy Hop Jack and Jill competition performance by Michael Seguin and Frida Sehgerdahl. Here’s the dance in question – the clip starts at 1 minute in, but really – watch the whole thing.

The systematic ways participants in this situation manage disruptions to the audience’s rhythmical clapping in relation to the dancers’ movements shows how they all work to uphold the relevance of normative patterns of mutual coordination. That’s a fancy way of saying that what is considered ‘good’ in this particular partner dance is not some fixed model of perfect dance movement, but the threat (and eventual narrow avoidance) of screwing up. This kind of analysis reveals how dancers initiate, sustain and complete distinct phases of spontaneous movement as embodied social actions.

The analysis in the paper uses detailed, empirical examples of rhythmical coordination to show how dancers and audience members combine improvisation and set-piece choreography. Here’s an example from the conclusion that shows just a few of the rhythmical patterns we can derive from a detailed analysis of just 10 seconds of dancing.

The audience's clapping mapped to the clapping of a specific member of the audience (Jo Hoffberg!) and the footfalls of each dancer.
The audience’s clapping mapped to the clapping of a specific member of the audience (Jo Hoffberg!) and the footfalls of each dancer.

This kind of analysis may not tell us much about the qualitative detail of the dance. However, it provides a clear empirical resource for further analytical work – which can then be analysed in relation to more everyday forms of rhythmical coordination. This provides a starting point for analysing the dancers’ activities and the audience’s response in a way that draws on empirically observable materials that also focuses on the methods the participants themselves use to make sense of those materials.

The approach proposed by this paper shows how people use whatever materials are available including visible, audible and tactile bodily actions as part of a communicative environment. It shows how they can combine these resources in an ad-hoc fashion to coordinate and communicate their movements – much as we do in everyday talk in interaction.

For example, here’s a diagram that shows some of the empirical distinctions we can make about rhythmical coordination in various everyday activities.

Patterns of rhythmical coordination in everyday activities, derived from Chauvigné, L. A. S., Gitau, K. M., & Brown, S. (2014). The neural basis of audiomotor entrainment: an ALE meta-analysis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 776.
Patterns of rhythmical coordination in everyday activities, derived from Chauvigné, L. A. S., Gitau, K. M., & Brown, S. (2014). The neural basis of audiomotor entrainment: an ALE meta-analysis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 776.

Based on this kind of analysis, the paper maps out all the available rhythms in that particular 10 second clip – and shows how they are organised in clearly distinctive patterns.

Coupled and uncoupled forms of rhythmical coordination
Coupled and uncoupled forms of rhythmical coordination in the 10 seconds of dancing in Michael and Frida’s Jack and Jill.

The purpose, and overall take-away from this paper is that when people talk about the ‘language of dance’, it’s not just an empty idiom, or a transposition of linguistic/semiotic theories onto bodily movements. Dance, seen in its broader social and interactional context, and especially in vernacular dance practices actually functions much like language. In fact, it may be quite difficult to draw clear empirical distinctions between dance, sign language and other forms of communicative social action.

Of course this paper doesn’t go that far – it is intended to set a course for future work as part of a larger project on partner dance as an interactional practice. It suggests that a good place to start understanding the ‘language of dance’ is to look at vernacular practices – where improvisation is combined with set-piece choreography through ad-hoc embodied social action. In particular, the paper suggests that rhythm is one way we can begin to look at dance – and other socio-aesthetic practices – as everyday interactional achievements.

Many thanks to Jonathan Jow and the Lindy Library for the awesome video data. If you want to geek out about it, you can watch another version of the same few moments of dance from a slightly different angle courtesy of Patrick and Natasha. Thanks also to the paper’s two anonymous reviewers, and to Chiara Bassetti and Emanuele Bottazzi for their help and for co-editing the special issue ERQ on Rhythm in Social Interaction in which this paper appears.

Improvisation ≠ non-improvisation

As part of a research project into partner dance as an interactional achievement, I presented a short paper at the 2015 Joint Improvisation Meeting in Paris. The presentation draws on research published in a paper I wrote on the rhythmical coordination of performers and audience members in a dance improvisation. Thanks to CNRS Paris and the organisers for making this video of the talk available available.


If you just saw a presentation of this paper, here are the references for the talk – there are more in the paper linked above.

  • Atkinson, J. Maxwell. 1984. “Public Speaking and Audience Responses: some Techniques for Inviting Applause.” In Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, edited by J. Maxwell Atkinson and John Heritage, 370–410. Cambridge University Press.
  • Boden, MA. 2003. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. London: Routledge.
  • Broth, Mathias. 2011. “The Theatre Performance as Interaction Between Actors and Their Audience.” Nottingham French Studies 50 (2): 113–133.
  • Broth, Mathias, and Leelo Keevallik. 2014. “Getting Ready to Move as a Couple: Accomplishing Mobile Formations in a Dance Class.” Space and Culture 17 (2) (\#jan\#): 107–121. doi:10.1177/1206331213508483.
  • Chauvigné, Léa A. S., Kevin M Gitau, and Steven Brown. 2014. “The Neural Basis of Audiomotor Entrainment: an ALE Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00776.
  • Clayman, Steven E. 1993. “Booing: The Anatomy of a Disaffiliative Response.” American Sociological Review: 110–130.
  • DeMers, Joseph Daniel. 2013. “Frame Matching and ΔP T ED: a Framework for Teaching Swing and Blues Dance Partner Connection.” Research in Dance Education 14 (1) (Apr): 71–80. doi:10.1080/14647893.2012.688943.
  • Gardair, Colombine. 2013. “Assembling Audiences.” PhD thesis, Queen Mary University of London.
  • Goodwin, Charles. 2007. “Interactive Footing.” In Reporting Talk, edited by E Holt and Rebecca Clift, 16–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jackson, Jonathan David. 2001. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.” Dance Research Journal 33 (2) (Winter): 40–53. doi:10.2307/1477803.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4) (\#nov\#): 401–426. doi:10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Puri, Rajika, and Diana Hart-Johnson. 1995. “Thinking with Movement: Improvising Versus Composing.” In Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance, edited by Brenda Margaret Farnell and Drid Williams, 158–185. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
  • Ravignani, Andrea, Daniel L Bowling, and W Tecumseh Fitch. 2014. “Chorusing, Synchrony, and the Evolutionary Functions of Rhythm.” Frontiers in Psychology 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01118.
  • Sacks, Harvey, and Emanuel A Schegloff. 2002. “Home Position.” Gesture 2: 133–146. doi:10.1075/gest.2.2.02sac.
  • Schober, Michael F., and Neta Spiro. 2014. “Jazz Improvisers’ Shared Understanding: a Case Study.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (August) (\#aug\#): 1–21. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00808.
  • Sloboda, John A. 1986. “The Musical Mind” (Apr). doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198521280.001.0001.

Sustainable Research Literature Management with Docear part II


This is part II of a two-part post in which I will walk you through some key parts of a technically-savvy user’s long-term literature review and maintenance strategy.

In part I you learned to

  • take notes while reading that won’t get lost or damaged by your software,
  • organise notes and annotations so you won’t forget why you took them,

In this section, you will learn how to:

  • maintain associated bibliographical records,
  • use Docear in a way that will keep your literature reviewing current for years to come.

Warning: long post, so here’s a table of contents:


First, Import your annotations into Docear to manage them

So far, this guide has given you some pretty generic advice about note taking, you could use it in any piece of software. The Docear-specific pay-off for this process comes when you import your PDFs into Docear: you can use Docear’s internal scripting language (well, FreePlane’s version of Groovy) to format, re-organise and label your new annotations automatically. I have some complicated scripts that I won’t cover here, but here’s a very simple one I use to automatically apply visual labels to my annotations.

Docear offers a number of visual labels you can use to decorate the nodes in your maps, to make them visually appealing and easily distinguishable:


I have written a script that looks for all annotations beginning with ‘idea’, or ‘ref’ or ‘term’, and allocates them one of a number of pre-set visual labels provided by Docear.

if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("todo")) {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("idea"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("ref"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("question"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("q:"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("quote"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("note"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("term"))  {
} else if (node.text.toLowerCase().startsWith("crit"))  {

To install this script, I wrote this code to a file called addiconNodes.groovy, which I then put it in my /home/saul/.docear/scripts directory (NB: the location of this directory may vary on Mac/Win). Docear also has a built-in script editor you can use to write groovy scripts. The script then becomes available as a contextual menu item.

Here are some illustrations showing the script being run on a newly imported paper:

Selecting the script option in Docear:

What it looks like when the script has run finished:

And how you might then choose to organise your annotations:

You’ll find lots of Freeplane scripts you can modify and play with here – there are some amazing possibilities – the icons script above doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this method could do for your literature reviewing process.

Using Docear to manage thousands of papers across multiple projects and multiple years

Docear’s demo shows someone writing a paper with about 20 or 30 references. This is fine for one project, but I have over 3000 PDF books and papers in my literature repository. Over the years, I suspect this will continue to grow. I want to feel secure that my library of research papers, annotations and references is in one safe location on my hard drive. I also don’t want to have to duplicate those PDFs each time I start a new project. Here are some of my solutions to these issues geared towards a long-term research strategy.

First: a geeky caveat

Having recommended Docear for the approach outlined so far, there are some problems with Docear that I think you will have to address if you are really going to use it for a long-term research and literature management strategy.

If you think you might just use it for a masters-level one year project, the rest of this guide probably isn’t necessary. If you want to read your way into and stay up to date with the vast literature of one or more academic fields long-term, read on, but be warned: it gets even more geeky from here on in.

Docear’s default per-project folder structure and its problems

At the moment Docear encourages you to store your PDFs on a per-project basis, as if you were starting from literature year 0 each time you write something. Also (by default, at least) it puts them in a rather obscure folder structure. I don’t really trust myself to reliably back-up obscure folder structures.

Here’s how Docear does a default file structure for a demo project I just created

                /Docear demo
                                /Docear demo.bib
                            /My Drafts
                                /My New
                        /Example PDFs

The idea from Docear’s developers here is that you get a few files by default when you start a new project including a dummy ‘My New’ (.mm stands for Mind Map) , a project-name.bib file and a file, and a folder to hold all the PDFs you’ve associated with this project..

The file contains a script that – when you open it – will scan through this project-specific literature_repository and check for updated files or new annotations.

This creates several problems:

  1. Docear’s structure works fine for a per-project use, but I have 9GB of PDFs, I do not want to wait for Docear to scan through those and check for updates every time I start it up.
  2. I’d rather not store all my precious PDFs with thousands of hours-worth of annotations 5 levels down an application-specific folder hierarchy that I may or may not remember to transfer to a new machine. Similarly, I don’t want my references – which may have taken a long time to assemble stored in a folder handily called ‘1493C9745013F2UNMIV1XCU93LBPZ4Y0KU14’.
  3. I want to be able to use PDFs and bibliographic data from all my previous projects in new projects easily.

Work-around 1: consolidating your literature archive

Use a ‘main_literature_repository’ for your key files

  • I create a ‘default’ project into which I first import for all my PDFs and references
  • I set up this project to store PDFs in a folder in my Dropbox called main_literature_repository.
  • I put the main BibTeX file for this project in the same folder.

This means I have one canonical BibTeX file with all the books and papers I will ever import in my main_literature_repository folder – this makes it easy to back up. I use Dropbox to keep rough versioning for me in case I do something silly or lose my machine/s – use your backup strategy and folder location of choice.

Use a per-paper mind map for long-term annotation and re-annotation

I delete the file from my default project. I do not want to wait 3 hours while Docear scans through all 9GB of my papers when it starts up. Instead, in the same main_literature_repository folder, I create a per-paper mind map.

I do this because I may use a paper six times in six different paper/research contexts. Ideally, I want to be able to read and re-read it, and keep track of what interested me about it and when… not have to delve into each project I used it for.

So, once I’ve done my annotations, I create a new map in my default project, I import the PDF, copy and paste the title of the PDF and use it to name the new mind map identically to the paper, so that in my main_literature_repository folder I have:


Apart from anything else, I can glance through the folder listed alphabetically and see which papers I have actually read! Now every time I update my annotations in that paper, I can import them into this paper-specific map, and organise them.

I might want to do this in a number of ways (one big list, thematically etc.) but I usually organise them to show how they relate to the project I’m currently working on. If I read that paper three or four times, and each time I organise the new annotations in this way, after six or seven readings/uses of that paper it’s going to be interesting to be able to see how my use of this paper has changed over time.

A quick example of importing a paper:

I download a paper helpfully entitled: ‘12312131231512312313.pdf’ from a publisher. I re-name it something useful (e.g.:AuthornameYYYY-title.pdf)2, and put it into my main_literature_repository folder, using Docear or Jabref to add or automatically import its bibliographical record into my default project BibTeX file. Once I’ve read it and taken notes in annotations, I manually create a new map just for this paper in the same main_literature_repository folder. This is now the mother lode folder with all my really important work in it.

Work-around 2: using your papers across multiple projects

This bit is kind of tricky and involves many trade-offs, I think Docear will fix it some day, for now, this is how I am doing it.

I create a new project, and treat it as a ‘sub-project’ of my default project

When I start a new Docear project, I let Docear create a default folder structure something like the one above. To get literature from my main_literature_repository folder into this new project, I create symbolic file system links to the relevant PDF files in my main_literature_repository in the new sub-project-specific literature_repository folder.

So the original PDFs live here:


I create a new Docear project and create symlinks (only for the relevant PDFs) here:

                /Docear demo
                                /Docear demo.bib
                            /My Drafts
                                /My New
                        /Example PDFs

Now if I open my file in the new sub-project, it will import these new PDFs and their associated annotations and I can start working with them. Of course any changes to annotations I make in these maps will also change annotations in the original PDFs.

Maintaining bibliographical references across Docear projects (and other software)

The only issue with this approach so far is that your new project-specific BibTeX file will not automatically import metadata from your ‘default’ project. This means that when you import your PDFs into this new project’s map, they will have no bibliographical reference data attached.

To understand why – and how to solve it – you need to know a little bit more about how Docear works:

Docear allows you to re-organise your annotations while maintaining their associations with the bibliographical reference of the paper they’re drawn from by linking nodes in your Mind Map (.mm) files to PDFs referenced in your BibTeX file. Docear does this by adding a ‘file’ BibTeX field entry for each paper. Here’s an example of a BibTeX entry from my databse:

  author = {Alexa Hepburn and Sue Wilkinson and Rebecca Shaw},
  title = {Repairing self- and recipient reference},
  journal = {Research on Language and Social Interaction},
  year = {2012},
  volume = {45},
  pages = {175-190},
  number = {2},
  file = {:/home/saul/main_literature_repository/hepburn_repairingselfand_2012.pdf:PDF},
  keywords = {EMCA, Self-reference, Reference ; Repair},

So when Docear scans this PDF, it extracts its annotations, places them in the map, and creates a hyperlink to the PDF listed the file field. This means if I click on the node, it opens the file. Docear also extracts the bibliographical information from this BibTeX reference, and then adds them as attributes of the associated annotation node on my map.

So, when I create a symbolic link to this file in my new sub-project, Docear sees it as a new PDF, namely:


But it doesn’t have any BibTeX data in this new project, so it won’t recognise this PDF and paste in associated bibliographical data.

To solve this issue, there are several possible solutions:

  • Sym link your ‘default project’ BibTeX file into each new sub-project using a symlink – just like you do with your PDF files.
  • Duplicate your ‘default project’ BibTeX file into each new sub-project, search/replacing the ‘file’ field of each entry to point to your new sub-project’s literature_repository folder.
  • Or, (and this is what I do), open your main BibTeX file in a recent, stand-alone version of JabRef and use the ‘write XMP data’ option to make sure that the PDFs themselves contain their own reference data. When you import these PDFs, you can then use the reference embedded in the PDF itself to create a new and separate project-specific BiBteX file.

JabRef’s XMP writing option:


This third option is preferable to me for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to see all my references in every new project – it’s distracting.
  2. XMP data can be read by lots of other bits of software so it makes my reference library somewhat more portable. Also, if I lose my BibTeX file in some catastrophic data loss episode, as long as I have my PDFs with XMP bibliographic data I can pretty much reconstruct my literature, annotation and reference archive from just those files.
  3. I may want to update my bibliographical records for a new project, but keep the references of older projects intact. Although I’m aware that I improve my bibliographies continually and incrementally, I really want to control how I change them. For example, if I continually use my default project BibTeX file, symlinked in to each new sub-project as in option 1, I may not be able to re-generate a paper I wrote three years ago before I made those changes and improvements. I really want that paper to be re-created exactly as it was when I wrote it, including all the reference details and errors. I can always update an old BibTeX file from an old project easily – because the PDF file itself now contains the latest up-to-date XMP data.

I see this feature of the latest, stand-alone version of JabRef (not available in Docear’s embedded version of JabRef) as a significant plus in terms of the sustainability of this approach to literature management.

Things I didn’t cover but may post about in the future

There are lots of other things you can do using this approach to Docear – and Docear’s approach in general, a few I can think of that I didn’t cover are:

  • Using the command line to search/filter your annotations.
  • Using recoll, spotlight or similar configurable full text search systems on your repository.
  • Importing folder structures containing other research materials into your map.
  • Using Docear (or freeplane) to take detailed and well structured notes during lectures.
  • Using Docear to manage and search Jeffersonian transcripts of conversational data.

If you have any questions or would like to hear about these, drop me an email or get me on @saul


  1. ^ Because I like small tools for simple jobs, I actually do this using JabRef in stand-alone mode, along with JabRef’s rename files plugin to do this automatically and configurably. NB: Docear will do this automatically in upcoming versions – the feature is already in there, just not quite ready yet.

Sustainable Research Literature Management with Docear part I


This is part I of a two-part post in which I will walk you through some key parts of a technically-savvy user’s long-term literature review and maintenance strategy. In part I you will learn how to use Docear to:

  • take notes while reading that won’t get lost or damaged by your software,
  • organise notes and annotations so you won’t forget why you took them,

In part II, should you choose to get geeky and read that bit too, you will learn to:

  • maintain associated bibliographical records,
  • use Docear in a way that will keep your literature reviewing current for years to come.

Warning: long post, so here’s a table of contents:



What this guide is for

There are many software systems that purport to be helpful in managing academic literature, and everyone swears by their own. My belief about software is that it’s usually a nightmare, and your choice should be driven by considerations of damage limitation. With that in mind, I am using Docear to limit the damage that software can do to my literature reviewing and thesis preparation process.

This guide will outline some ways to use this software with long-term sustainability in mind. If you don’t know what Docear is, you could spend 6 minutes watching this video.

If you’re starting a PhD or a research process, and thinking about how to keep up with the literature long-term, you might want to think about using Docear in the ways described here. To get started with that, first download and install Docear, read Docear’s own very good user guide to understand the basics, then come back and read this1.

Why Docear works for a long-term research strategy

There are lots of good reasons listed on the Docear website that compare Docear’s features to Zotero, Mendeley or other reference management systems.

My choices are driven by issues of long-term software sustainability, and focus on cross-compatibility, reliability and stability. Docear fits my criteria because:

  • It’s Open Source software using well adopted, documented and supported file formats.
  • Docear’s plain text-based file formats for are searchable and editable.
  • Text-based files enable version control and collaboration (including with your future self).
  • Docear, JabRef and FreePlane all work together or separably on most platforms.

In general, Docear conforms with the tenets of Unix Philosophy i.e.: Docear is designed to be modular, clear, simple, transparent, robust, and extensible for users and developers.

What all this means for academics is that

  • You are probably always going to be able to edit and view these files on any platform.
  • If you just want to change a bibliographic reference, you can just use the bibliography manager (or a text editor) to do it on any computing platform without even firing up Docear.
  • If you just want to view your Docear file on Android, i0S, or using any mind-map viewer, you can open it (albeit with limited features) in FreePlane, FreeMind, Xmind or the many associated pieces of software that can read these files.
  • If you want to search your entire archive of papers, you can do it using grep on a command line or with any text-search and indexing system that can read your file system (I use Recoll).
  • It doesn’t mess with your files or do complex or potentially destructive things, use fancy databases etc. You can move away from Docear at any time – you’ll still have your annotations, your PDFs, your BibTeX reference files.

No vendor lock-in, no dodgy or dangerous games with your data. That’s a lot of damage-limitation right there, and this isn’t even mentioning a compelling and unusual combination of features that Docear itself documents very well – so I won’t go over those, but nonetheless, here is my list of:

Killer features of Docear

  • Import annotations from PDFs, and cross-sync them (change the annotation in your PDF – it gets changed in Docear, change it in Docear, it gets synced in your PDF).
  • Organise your annotations in multiple ways
    • Organise your annotations visually by research theme / category / heading
    • Organise your annotations visually by paper / book / author
    • Mix these up, copy and paste annotations multiple times, make further notes on annotations etc.
  • Import file/folder structures from your hard disk, so you can get an overview of your data, files and research materials alongside your literature, and make notes and connections between them.
  • Maintain the bibliographical associations of your annotations and notes, even after copy/pasting/reorganising them.

Just to re-state this: I’m not going to go through these basics in this how-to, so if you want to learn to use Docear from scratch you really should read the manual. What follows are some adaptations I’ve made to the Docear workflow that I think make it even more useful as a secure and long-term bet for research literature management.

How to take notes that won’t get lost or corrupted

PDFs, however flawed as a document format, are a de facto standard in academia and aren’t going away soon. You can read, edit and share them relatively easily on all devices and platforms, so that’s probably how you should store your annotations and bibliographical data.

General annotation strategy

Many pieces of literature review / bibliography management / annotation software keep notes and bibliographical records scattered about in proprietary databases or separate annotation files, so following Docear’s excellent advice on the issue I use ezPDF Reader on Android, and PDF-XChange Viewer on Linux (via wine) to make my annotations in my PDFs themselves.

Docear allows you to manage these annotations effectively without sacrificing the simplicity and security of having it all in one, cross-platform, easily accessible file.

Synchronisation and backup across clients/computers

The benefits of this are clear: you can easily back up your PDFs.

I use Dropsync to synchronise my main_literature_repository folder with a folder on my Android tablet, so when I’m on the go I can take notes and have them appear automatically in my literature review mind map when I start up Docear.

I tried using Dropbox’s own android client, I found that it would sync too frequently, and sometimes randomly deletes its temporary files. For this reason I recommend syncing your entire PDF repository to your mobile devices, editing the PDF locally (on the android device’s file system), then synchronising with Dropbox or whatever local/cloud/repo/backup service you prefer.

How to remember why you took your notes in the first place

Use action-related tags for each annotation

I have most of my research ideas while reading, but they’re not all just ‘notes’, they are really different in response to different ideas about what I plan to do with that idea. So I find it useful to distinguish between the kinds of notes I take on documents. When I take an annotation, I track that difference by starting the annotation with one of 10 or so labels:

  • todo: The most important label – this reminds me to do something (look up a paper, change something in my manuscript etc.)
  • idea: I’m inspired with a new idea, somehow based on this paper, but it’s my own thing.
  • ref: This is a reference, or contains a reference that I want to use for something.
  • question: or just q: I have a question about this, maybe to ask the author or myself in relation to my data / research.
  • quote: I want to quote this, or it contains a useful quote
  • note: Not a specific use in mind for this, but it’s worth remembering next time I pick up this paper.
  • term: A new term or word I’m not familiar with: I look it up or define it in the annotation.
  • crit: I have a criticism of this bit of the paper.

There are a few others I use occasionally, but these are the most common. You probably can think of your own based on how you would categorise the kinds of thoughts that come to you while reading research papers.

Use keywords for each research project/idea

I have 3 or 4 project constantly on the go, and lots of ideas for new projects and papers. I want to capture my responses to what I’m reading in relation to those projects in a reliable way.

So, I have short, unique keywords for each of my projects:

  • camedia: a CA project about how people talk about the recording devices they’re using
  • cadance: a CA project about partner dance
  • thesis: my thesis
  • thesis_noticings: my chapter on noticings
  • thesis_introduction: get it?

So if I’m reading a paper and it says something like:

“Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on dance”

I’ll highlight, copy and paste that into a new annotation, and add a few keywords on the top:

    quote: cadance: "Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on dance"

This means when I search for all my annotations to do with ‘cadance’ project, I’ll find this one, and I’ll know I wanted to use this as a quote.

Similarly, I may have multiple projects:

    quote: cadance: thesis_noticings: "Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on dance"

If I want to quote something, but also want to write a note about it, I’ll make two separate annotations on the PDF, one that says:

    quote: cadance: thesis_noticings: "Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on dance"

The other that says:

    note: cadance: thesis_noticings: "Something I really disagree with and want to comment on or respond to in my next article on dance": I really disagree with this for reason, reason and reason.

These will show up in my literature review map as two separate annotations, with different actions attached to them.

Use auto-completion software to make this less painful

I use Switfkey for all my annotation on my Android tablet (where I do most of it). This greatly reduces the time required to type in repetitive tags or keywords that I use all the time to enhance my annotations (see the next section). It also offers auto-complete suggestions so I can remember more complex project keywords / tags easily.

That’s the general advice bit. Geeky advice follows in part II.

So far, this guide has given you some pretty generic advice about note taking, you could use it in any piece of software. The Docear-specific pay-off for this process comes when you import your PDFs into Docear. However, that bit gets pretty geeky. You’ll need to be comfortable with scripting, modifying workflows of existing software packages, and generally be unperturbed by geeky terminology.

If this isn’t your thing, you can just use Docear with the above strategies – or use them more generally in your literature reviewing.

If you are geekily inclined, or just curious, check out part II of this post.


  1. ^ One little gotcha: if you’re using a Mac (esp. Yosemite (10.9.X or newer)), you’ll have to do some terminal diddling to make sure you’ve enabled software from unsigned sources to run on your machine or you’ll get an unhelpful error message. Thanks Apple!