PhD, the final frontier – Part two: Reconnaissance

Tools and methods for PhD research and writing

After my decision was made to attempt a scholarly career and aim for a PhD (see my first post in this series), I started writing a one page proposal. When I finished I had a working title, a working subtitle, a table of content with 6 chapter titles, and a very general and broad text about some contradictions between the state of technology and the integration of information. I can’t really go into any details, because the first thing you learn when you aim for a scholarly publication, is to keep your subject to yourself as much as possible in order to prevent someone else from hijacking it and get there first.


I used Google Docs/Drive for writing this proposal. I have been using Google Docs since a couple of years for all my writing, both personal and professional, because that way I have access to my documents wherever I go on any device I want, I can easily share and collaborate, and it keeps previous versions.

I shared my proposal with my advisor Frank Huysmans, using the Google Docs sharing options. We initially communicated about it through Twitter DMs, Google Docs comments and email. Frank’s first reaction was that it looked like a good starting point for further exploration, and he saw two related perspectives to explore: Friedrich Kittler’s media ontology and Niklas Luhmann’s system theory. I had studied a book by Luhmann on the sociology of legal trials during my years in university, but he only became one of the major theoretical sociologists after that. I hadn’t heard of Kittler at all. He is a controversial major media and communications philosopher. Both are (or rather were) Germans.

Next step: I needed to get hold of literature, books and articles, both by and about Luhmann and Kittler, preferably in English, although I read German very well. Some background information about the scholars and their work would also be useful.
An important decision I had to make was whether I was going to use print, digital or both formats for my literature collection. I didn’t have to think long. I decided to try and get everything in digital format, either as online material, or downloadable PDFs, EPUBs etc. The main reason is that this way I can store the publications in an online storage facility like Dropbox, and have access to all my literature wherever I am, at work, at home and on the road (either on an ereader or my smartphone).

Frank, who is a Luhmann expert, gave me some pointers on publications by and about Luhmann. Kittler I had to find on my own. Of course, working for the Library of the University of Amsterdam and being responsible for our Primo discovery tool, I tried finding relevant Luhmann and Kittler publications there. I also tried Google and Google Scholar. I used my own new position as a library consumer to perform a basic comparison test between library discovery and Google. My initial conclusions were that I got better results using Google than our own Primo. This was in March 2013. But in the mean time both Ex Libris and the Library have made some important adjustments to the Primo indexing procedures and relevance ranking algorithm. Repeating similar searches in November 2013 provided much better results.
Anyway, I mostly ignored print publications. As a staff member of the University of Amsterdam I have access to all subscription online content, whether I find it through our own discovery tools or via Google. What I can’t find in our library discovery tools are ‘unofficial’ digital versions of print books. Here Google can help. For instance I found a complete PDF version of Luhmann’s main work “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft” (“Society of society”, in German). Also Frank was so kind to digitise/copy for me some chapters of relevant print books about Luhmann.

I discovered that I needed some sort of mechanism to categorise or catalogue my literature in such a way that this is available to me wherever I am, other than just put files in a Dropbox folder. After some research I decided on Mendeley, which was originally presented as a reference manager, but is now more a collaboration, publication sharing and annotation environment. I am not using Mendeley as a reference manager for now, only for categorising digital local and online publications and making annotations attached to the publications.
An important feature that I need in research is to have access to my notes everywhere. With Mendeley I can attach notes to PDFs in the Mendeley PDF reader which are synchronised with my other Mendeley installations on other workstations, if the ‘synchronise files’ option is checked everywhere. Actually Mendeley distinguishes between “notes” and “annotations”. Notes are made and attached on the level of the publication, annotations are linked to specific text sections in PDFs. Annotations don’t work with EPUB files, because there is no embedded Mendeley EPUB reader, or with online URLs. I can add notes to specific EPUB text sections in my ereader which is synchronised between my ereader software instances. So I still need an independent annotation tool that can link my notes to all my research objects and synchronises them between my devices independent of format or sofware.

A final note about digital formats. PDFs are the norm in digital scholarly dissemination of publications. PDFs are fine to read on a PC, and attaching notes in Mendeley, but they’re horrible to read on my ereader. There I prefer EPUB. I would really like to have more standard options for downloading publications to select from, at least PDF and EPUB.

Summarising, the functions I need for my PhD research and writing in this stage, and the tools and methods I am currently using:


  • Find publications, information: library discovery tools, Google Scholar, the web
  • Acquire digital copies of publications: access/authorisation; PDF, EPUB
  • Store material independent of location and device: Dropbox, Mendeley
  • Save references: Mendeley
  • Notes/annotations: Mendeley, Kobo ereader software
  • Write and share documents independent of location and device: Google Docs
  • Communicate: Twitter, email, Google Docs comments

2 thoughts on “PhD, the final frontier – Part two: Reconnaissance

  1. Lukas, after all this searching don’t you want some decent alerts? Google Scholar is limited in this respect. Is primo up to that task? Or do you have to resort back to the classical bibliogrpahies?

    Succes with your PhD anyways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *