Don’t just organize references, organize your research ideas with RAx Projects

Treading the path of formal research methodology

In a previous article published in The Academic Rollercoaster (and a recent one in The Backstage), I discussed our motivation behind building RAx, particularly why we did not choose to live happily with reference managers and other tools. In this article, I will explain how you can use RAx, starting with the Project feature, in a manner that closely follows the formal research methodology that you are used to.

Organising references is just not enough

One key point that almost all reference managers miss out on is that managing references is not the same as managing academic projects. References (or rather “potential” citations) is just one aspect of academic project management. However, how much counter-intuitive it might seem to be to some of you, this is not the central activity of any academic researcher.

Managing references is not the same as managing academic projects.

To understand this, let’s look deeply into why at all we “think” that we need reference managers. The three key recurring needs that all researchers have are:

  1. Collect, hopefully, the next best reads based on one’s current depth and breadth of scholarship.
  2. Read, and hopefully, quickly understand a particular paper at hand.
  3. Review the paper at hand comprehensively, thereby hopefully developing newer insights or adding depth to one’s opinions.

I have not seen a single modern reference manager that does not claim all of the three. However, upon careful analysis, one would realize that this claim is based on a very superficial interpretation of Collect, Read, and Review, while completely ignoring the phrases in italics. If we have to analyze further, we would see that all the parts in italics have nothing to do with the final write-up and submission of papers, which interestingly is the key point-of-focus of most reference managers. They rather pertain to the thinking-and-doing process that ultimately culminates into a paper or thesis draft. It is obvious that a systematic write-up process cannot be supported without supporting a systematic thinking process at a cognitive level.

[The challenges of literature review] has nothing to do with the final write-up and submission of papers, which interestingly is the key point-of-focus of most reference managers.

And this is exactly where reference managers fail and end up becoming twisted versions of Google Drive.

Structure of a typical reference manager

I honestly do not see how, barring only the feature of citation extraction and citation stylisation, all the advanced features cannot be done easily in Drive including making and storing annotations, sharing, searching with topic or keywords, storing from web links such as journal web pages, etc. Quite interestingly, many of us come to this same conclusion, although subconsciously, through our personal experience which leads us to the ousting of reference managers from our daily research life-cycle. Keeping-track-of-literature, in the reference manager sense, is rather overhyped. Essentially, the manager leaves all the managing to you — the researcher.

“Keeping-track-of-literature”, in the reference manager sense, is rather overhyped. Essentially, the manager leaves all the managing to you-the researcher.

Organize your project, don’t just create reference collections

The design objective of RAx is to address the critical thinking-n-doing aspect of research — the key pain-point of researchers. It consciously chooses not to follow the conventional collect-read-write-n-cite paradigm, but rather, adheres to the formal research methodology of the find-read-think-argue-connect process. Any work in RAx begins by creating a Project. This has a very different use-case, as compared to contemporary reference manager-styled Collection(s), whose raison d’être is to just store “all useful references to research literature as you come across them”. Their key focus, as highlighted before, is to address only one aspect of the researcher’s ultimate goal of writing and submitting a paper. In contrast, the RAx Project feature is designed to meet the quintessential need of structuring one’s thoughts and insights, while being in total sync with how one actually goes through the research life-cycle on a day-to-day basis. That is why RAx asks the researcher to start out by creating a Research Project. A project is just what a project means in your discipline — a bigger task in hand that should hopefully culminate into a thesis dissertation with a series of prior publications in the form of paper or book. And for all these, RAx logically divides a Project into two inseparable parts 1. Literature-list and 2. Draft-list.

Literature-list: A set of Literature that you would be putting in your reading list (can be research papers, blog articles, surveys, etc.). This is very different than building a citation list in a Collection, which I personally feel doesn’t make much sense. This is because you are still not sure whether the papers inside your Collections will at all be a part of your citations, and if yes then for which “future” papers. Hence, literature-list helps you to organize all the research papers that you would want to review in the future together with what you have already studied. Every literature that you would want to read is provided with a pre-filled but customizable Review Template which I will be elaborating in a follow-up article. The purpose of the Review Template feature is to help the researcher to ask the right kind of research questions as they read a paper and then to document the key takeaways, based on those questions, in a focused manner.

If I can take the liberty of digressing a bit, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that many times you would need to clarify certain concepts not by reading another dense research paper but rather by “RAxing up” (a feature we will discuss at length later) various resources such as Wikipedia articles, conference talks, online lectures, and research magazines. Surely you would also want to clip the right ones with the paper at hand as references so that you do not lose them for your personal future referencing. Note that this is very different than the reference manager-styled references (or rather citations) that you would want to keep in your final paper that you would be submitting at some venue. And that’s exactly why RAx has the Reference feature which will be elaborated in a future article.

In short, RAx makes a clear distinction between references, literature-list, and citations based on their respective use-cases.
Structure of Literature list in RAx

Coming back to literature-list, on several occasions you will be discovering many other papers as you are reading a particular paper at hand. This exploration may either happen inside RAx by RAxing-up research papers or outside of RAx in which case you can bring them in by attaching their website URLs as references. Some of these papers can be very related to the peripheral themes of the paper, without having anything to do with the core theme. These papers need a separate bucketing for future referencing and hence, it is not a good idea to collect them in the same literature-list where your core papers are. All such papers can be attached in the reference-list specifically created for every paper that you read from the literature-list. Of course, you can add a few of these papers to the literature-list if you think they need to be reviewed in details.

Some of these [explored] papers can be very related to the peripheral themes of the paper [that you are studying], without having anything to do with the core theme. … [they] need a separate bucketing for future referencing.

It is also true that many of the papers in your literature-list that you are studying or have studied will not ultimately be part of your citation list for the paper that you are about to submit. And that’s where the second component comes handy — Drafts.

Draft-list: A set of Drafts that would comprise of all your work-in-progress. This can be categorized into the following (but not limited to):

  1. Key research questions
  2. Rough half-baked ideas
  3. To-Do lists
  4. Experimental design, observations and analysis
  5. Meeting notes and minutes
  6. Personal blogs, and of course
  7. Drafts of your papers that you finally wish to submit at some venue.
Structure of Drafts in RAx

The emphasis is primarily to help you in your work-in-progress and the effort is by no way to replace all the wonderful Latex Editors (offline and online) that exist for final draft preparation. With draft-list you can create, open up and switch between several drafts in different tabs, each of its own purpose-specific category, just like how you work with a web browser. You can create your own clickable draft outline templates for every category, which you can reuse for other projects. And while you are working, you can RAx-up various resources, including research papers. You can attach some of them with that specific draft as part of the draft’s reference-list for future citation purpose when you will be converting the draft into a paper for submission. So, every kind of draft can have its own relevant resources attached as references either for future personal use or for future citation purpose.

Drafts and Literature features work in tandem — one compliments the other. We read, we understand, we analyse, we connect, and then we formulate interesting research questions while putting down our own ideas. And then, on the basis of that, we meticulously crystallize our ideas, formulate an approach or rhetoric, maybe run some experiments or provide argumentation or evidences to support our approach, … and then finally start working on our paper. RAx is getting dressed up to cover this entire research life-cycle. In the next article, I will be elaborating on the use-case of the Literature Review feature.

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