Managing your ‘research admin’

This post tackles that terribly unsexy but very vital topic of ‘research admin’; that is, the processes that go into creating and storing all your data, writing, artefacts and so on that make up the research you do, and that need to be carefully managed so as to avoid disaster, stress and undue panic attacks. I have had to do some serious thinking about my own admin systems this week after I lost two big and irreplaceable pieces of data I was hoping to use in a paper I am presenting at a conference next week; I am learning a painful and stressful lesson about paying attention to where and how I store my data, writing and other research artefacts.

This is an area of doing research and being a researcher that I have not often spent too much time thinking about and working on, to be honest. But, last week I was forced to pay some serious attention when I finally got around to uploading all my old, PhD and newer, postdoc data into a new version of Nvivo on my new laptop. I did not convert my project on my old Nvivo application before that laptop died, so I need to recreate my PhD project alongside my postdoc project in this newer application of the programme. It’s a pain, but it has to be done and seeing as I now am writing two papers that draw on both the older and newer data, I can’t put off the uploading, organising, transcribing and coding any longer. So last Thursday I set aside most of the day for the task of putting all of my data into Nvivo and organising it. This involved finding all the data on an external harddrive and in Google Drive and in Dropbox, translating file formats from those not accepted into those accepted by the application and then creating folders and waiting for it all to be transformed and uploaded. It took ages, and I regretted putting it off so long. If I had just been chipping away at it bit by bit it would not have seemed like such a mission. But I digress.

On Thursday, to start this uploading etc process, I went looking for all my files and folders. I backed up my Dropbox and my laptop into an external HD at the end of my PhD, and during 2014 when I was generating postdoc data. But, and I can’t work out why I did this, I backed up in bits and pieces rather than in entirety. So, when I opened ‘Backup of Dropbox June 2014’ only some of the folders were there rather than all of them. One of the Postdoc data 2014 folders (in the HD) has all the lecture and interview audios from that year, and the other identical folder (in Google Drive) is missing 6 of them. But these folders should both be complete. When I searched for the workshop audios I recorded last year – both lengthy and valuable pieces of data on how my findings were received in the two departments I worked with – I could not find them at all. Anywhere. I searched every folder in every storage space I own (external HD, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Mac HD). It became very clear, in the midst of my stomach-dropping freak-out, that I need to make some vital improvements to my methods of storing information related to my research.

Firstly, having cloud storage is a must: I have heard so many terrible stories about PhD students saving all their data and writing files on a USB, or in a HD, only to have these crash, taking all their data and writing with them. The cloud won’t crash, and is accessible everywhere you have a computer or tablet and an internet connection. And memory of your passwords :). But splitting your folders and files between different clouds can be tricky without a clear and consistent system. What do you put where? What logic would you create and use for your filing system? If you have duplicate folders, I think you’re asking for confusion, because you either have to always save all your files in both locations, or you’ll likely end up with folders that have different sets of files in them even though they look like duplicates.

I work between Dropbox, which I love, and Google Drive, which I love less but which almost everyone I work with likes to work with, so I am learning to like it. I have more storage space in Google Drive, so have had duplicate (but not) folders in both, for example ‘Writing’ and ‘Teaching’. Yet, I know that the Dropbox folder for ‘Writing’ is the current, complete one, and the Drive folder for ‘Teaching’ is the current complete one. Why, then, all the unnecessary duplication and confusion, you ask? Laziness, probably. And perhaps also a fear that I can never have enough back-ups or storage spaces, hence my oddly inconsistent attempts to have the same files and folders everywhere. Just in case. This, however, has clearly not worked. Data has gone missing. Panic has ensued.

I am, therefore, taking action and having a ‘spring clean’ of all my storage spaces. I have also actually written down, in my research journal, my logic for an updated storage system, so that I have it somewhere that feels more concrete that the ‘e’-nvironment in which I mostly work. Firstly, I have gotten rid of all my duplicates and have divided my folders into personal and archival data (Dropbox) and work-related and current data (Drive). Everything is now backed up, in clearly marked folders, in a new external HD. My lovely husband, who has way more Dropbox space than I do (having actually forked out money for it whereas I am too cheap to do so) has created a shared folder for me in his Dropbox into which I can put all my current research-related files and folders especially. I have also emailed myself a few very important files I cannot bear to think about losing, like my final thesis and a couple of papers I am presently working on.

I have gone through the personal folders and deleted old and unused files, and things I no longer need, to free up more storage space for the files and documents I do and will need. I’m working on doing the same with the work-related folders as I have time. I think regular clean-outs are a good idea, as cloud storage and computer hard drives can fill up fast, and often we save things that can eventually be deleted. Look at your ‘last opened’ date as an indicator of when you last had a need for that information, and ask yourself if it needs to be archived, for example on an external HD, or could be deleted.

Secondly, I have had a think about how I create my data given that the two pieces of data I have lost are (or were) audio files generated on an audio recorder, that needed to be downloaded, saved and synced with my cloud. It turns out I do have one piece of data I can use in this paper – an audio file of a similar workshop to the two I have lost that I generated with my iPhone. My phone automatically syncs itself with my Mac when they within range of one another over the wifi, so when I open iTunes, all my voice memo files are there. I’m now thinking about ways to generate data, like video and audio, that will more easily ‘sync’ with the storage tools I use. Audio from now on I will certainly be recording with my phone, as it works really well for small workshops, interviews, and focus groups, and I’m looking into video options for my new data generation phase coming up soon.

Spending some time thinking about the technological tools we use to capture or generate our data is worthwhile. There are so many different tools and options out there, but finding those that work effectively for your aims and that make storing, sharing, and managing the data that much easier and safer can save you so much stress and hassle. Do some research, ask around (Twitter is great for this sort of thing, as there is loads of experience and advice out there); don’t just grab the first tool you find, or the only one you know or think you can afford. Your data is so valuable – you cannot duplicate it, or just generate more – and without it those papers, presentations and research artefacts are so difficult to create (if you can do that at all without your data).

Research admin is not a sexy topic, to be sure, but it is one that needs to be tackled when you are taking on a longer-term, complex and multi-layered task like an advanced postgraduate degree or a research project. Having a solid, consistent system and making time in your schedule to apply your system to creating, saving, and sharing your files and folders is well worth the effort.

 

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