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How I do Philosophy Research

After a few years I've settled on using a few key programs to manage my reading, writing, citing, journal submitting, and so on. I have found various online guides, like Daniel Vreeman's "Using Scrivener for Writing Scientific Papers", very useful, and so I thought I would write one about my own process.

I don't think my process is necessarily the best or the easiest for everyone, but it's what I've settled on for myself, and I find that it does things much better than other stuff I've done before (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Mendeley, LaTeX in its strange multifarious forms, and a dozen other things) so you might find my approach useful, either in whole or in part.

Two caveats. First, I don't think this process works very well for co-authoring, or at least if it does, I haven't figured it out yet. Right now I just co-author via sending a Microsoft Word draft back and forth with my co-author. Second, I'm (scandalously and probably to the extreme detriment of my academic acumen) not much of a note-taker and thus I don't really have a setup for note-taking in all of this. If you are a decent human being and an exemplary academic you presumably take copious notes, and you'll have to find your own solution - perhaps Evernote, perhaps Scrivener, perhaps Zotero, perhaps something else. Hypernomicon, mentioned below, is probably what I'd end up using, for the reasons described below.

I have a video demonstrating how this all works so that you can see it in action:

The Components of My Approach

There are two key programs I use: Scrivener and Zotero. To get all the fancy functionality, technically I also use LibreOffice. Scrivener costs money and is worth it, but everything else is free.

Scrivener: Writing Everything and Tracking Submissions

Scrivener does almost everything. I write everything in Scrivener, and I use Scrivener to keep track of journal and conference submissions. Scrivener mostly has "folders" (which are what they sound like); "texts," which are sort of like individual Microsoft Word documents; and "projects," which are collections of folders and texts. Watch my video or look up information abou Scrivener for more details about how it works.

How I Use Scrivener for Writing

I use Scrivener for writing journal articles and books. (Technically I haven't written any books - just my dissertation, which I wrote in Scrivener, plus incipient book drafts for the far future which are also in Scrivener. But the principles are sound!!!)

How I Use Scrivener for Journal Articles

I have one Scrivener "project" which contains every journal article I am working on. Here is what that project looks like:

My Scrivener Articles Project

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On the left, you can see all the folders. Each article is in its own folder (except for some closely-related articles, which are together in a single folder). Most folders also have "notes" pages, which are collections of things like quotes from articles I want to remember to discuss, reminders to myself about the article, and so on. The "expanded" folders are the articles I'm working on at the moment.

I like this setup for two main reasons. First, I have all my articles very easily accessible, which means I can quickly locate an article and work on it, rather than having to dig through lots of folders. This makes it easy to jump from project to project, move something from one article to another, get a reminder on what I'm working on, and so on. Second, I can back up all of my articles just by backing up my single Scrivener project file.

How I Use Scrivener for Books

Each book is its own project. Here is what a book looks like:

Example Scrivener Book Project

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Cleary I have a lot more work to do on the book. Each chapter in the book is its own "text" thing, but the way Scrivener works is that "texts" can behave like folders, and so each chapter text is also a folder with a "notes" text, and, more importantly, chunks of the chapter. So for instance if the chapter has 5 sections, those are 5 texts in the main chapter text. That's a nice thing about Scrivener: you can write everything in chunks. (I could write articles like this if I wanted.) This makes it very easy to re-order sections in chapters or to move a section from one chapter to another. And of course you can re-order the main chapter texts to reorder chapters. I also have a "Notes" folder at the bottom of the book which has various notes that relate to the book as a whole.

Since you can export the book as a whole, or just individual chapters, or whatever, you can use Scrivener to write the book as a holistic piece without having to worry about what happens if you want to just share a chapter on its own with its own separate bibliography, or any of the other issues that you'd have if you just wrote a big long book in Microsoft Word.

How I Use Scrivener for Tracking Submissions to Journals and Conferences

I have a Scrivener project that I use for tracking all my publication and conference information: what has been submitted where and when, how long it takes the journal to desk reject me, where I'm going to have to get a hotel four months from now, etc. Here's what that project looks like:

My Scrivener Article Submission Project

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There are two things to attend to in this picture: the outline on the left and the main page which is a sample page for an article. On the left you can see most of the contents of the project. I have an "Articles" folder (at the top) with every article either in progress (e.g. if it got an R&R and I'm R'ing it right now), out for desk rejection (or, as it's more usually and more optimistically referred to as, "out for review"), accepted, or abandoned - those four are each their own folder. (The 'abandoned' folder is mostly just for feeling sorry about myself - you can omit this folder with no deleterious effects.)

In each folder is a separate text for each article. What you're looking at in the picture above is a sample article text. It has the title of the article, the abstract (which is otiose, upon reflection, so I'd skip it if I were you) and a table containing the entire history of the article's submission. (To save time, I have an empty version of this text which is called "Article Template," and I copy it to make a new article entry. The number of rows you add to your template can reflect your optimism about how many journals you're going to have to submit the article to before it gets published!)

That covers the "Articles" folder (which in the picture above is mostly collapsed - if it were open you'd see all the individual articles). Below it is the "Journals" folder (which is expanded in the picture). The Journals folder has texts for each journal. These look a lot like the article texts, except they track everything I've submitted to that journal. At the top, instead of the article name and abstract, they have the journal's submission website and information about the journal's requirements (word count, what kinds of articles it publishes, etc.). If I needed to, I could put login details up here, or any other notes about the journal. Whenever I submit an article, receive an update on it (desk rejection, reviewer rejection, R&R, etc.) I add this information both to the article text and to the text for the journal the article was submitted to. If there's an easier way to do this than doing everything twice, I haven't found it. Suggestions are encouraged - see my CV for contact info.

You can't see it in the above screenshot but I also track conferences in this project. Here's what that looks like:

My Scrivener Conferences Tracker

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This should all be pretty self-explanatory, except perhaps the colors: I highlight in yellow conferences I've been accepted by, because this entails having to figure out all sorts of logistical stuff, and all the other colors are irrelevant, because they're a remnant of weird edge cases generated by worldwide COVID 19 lockdown. You can figure out your own color coding system. This whole thing is nice because I can see every CFP I'm interested in, all the conferences I'm already committed to and that I've submitted to and am waiting on, all the dates, etc. I change the "deadline" entry to "N/A" for conferences I've submitted to, so I can easily see which conferences still require submissions and which are done without having to check the "Submitted" column. The "Acceptance" column lists when I can expect to hear back, or a "yes" if I've heard back. If I get rejected I just delete the conference from the table, and from my esteem, forever.

Zotero: Citations

I use Zotero to handle citations. You can find plenty of information about that online, so I won't bother with screenshots or anything. The only relevant stuff here is how I integrate it with Scrivener. Here I basically follow Daniel Vreeman's guide. No need to repeat what he says, except to say that typically once an article gets an R&R, I start working from the Word copy I sent to the journal (or the Word copy from which I made the PDF to send to the journal) rather than the Scrivener text. I find this easier because I don't have to keep re-exporting the Scrivener text, but it does mean the final version of an article is never in Scrivener unless I make an effort to get it there (I don't). If I were ever to have an R&R rejected that would be annoying, because then if I wanted to make substantial changes to it (especially changes which impact the bibliography) I'd have to do that all manually, or get the revisions I made to the Word document back into Scrivener somehow. My plan for that is just never to have an R&R rejected. It's worked so far and thus by induction I'm pretty sure it will work forever.

If I Were a Brand New Grad Student...

This all works great for me. I don't think much is going to change. If I were going to start over I would probably do two extra things.

First, I would use something to manage my PDFs. Right now I don't manage my PDFs - they manage me, from the various folders in lord knows what places on my hard drive that they're stashed. I don't know what the best PDF managers are. If you are a grad student reading this, I suggest working out some unified PDF management system that handles folders, notes, highlights, etc. in some reasonable way so you don't have eighteen copies of an article spread out over the universe, which I think is the natural end result of not having a program handle this for you. O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, consider my PDFs, which were once as sensibly organized as yours.

Second, I think I'd use Hypernomicon to organize my thoughts. It is also a PDF manager, and a note-taking system, so if you need one or both of those, that's even better news. I say this only partially because it's made by a buddy of mine. Mostly it's because just having everything in my brain is probably not the best way to handle all the stuff I know, and a bunch of scattered notes might as well be a Hypernomicon database, because why not? The buy-in is pretty minimal if I'm just starting out rather than having to populate the database anew after having finished my PhD and been a professor for a few years. Hypernomicon would also be very helpful for keeping track of researchers who have interesting work and no website, or just a useless Academia.edu page, or whatever. (PhilPeople is mostly solving this problem, but it's not "complete" yet.)