Using web clipping and sidewiki to gather and synthesize information

May 10, 2012, [MD]

One piece of functionality in researchr that I find myself using quite frequently, is the ability to clip arbitrary amounts of texts from any webpage and send it to a given wikipage very quickly. The way it works is that I select some text (if I don't select any text, it will just use the page URL), and hit a key combo (Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+I). The system then pops up a box asking me which page I want to add the clipping to.

Above you see such a box - it automatically grabs the title from the web page to be used for the link, but allows me to edit it. I click OK, get a tiny Growl acknowledgement, and I can continue on with no interruption.

I might find some more text that I want to clip, from the same page, or from a different page, and I can simply click Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+J for "clip-again", which will send the text to the same place I sent the last clipping, without bothering to ask (again I will only see a Growl acknowledgment). This is on the theory that often you are gathering information on the same topic from several sources.

If the page doesn't already exist, it gets created with the proper headline. If it already exists, the new text or URL gets appended at the bottom of the page, separated by a line, and with a link back to the original page. If the clipping was from an article in researchr, the link is a properly formatted citation.

The idea is that I don't necessarily need to "integrate" the information with the rest of the article right away. I can keep adding information to it, and when I get around to it, I can sit down and organize it properly. Sometimes I go out to research a subject, and add a large amount of links or information in an afternoon, and then sit down to organize it, other times pages grow slowly from month to month, before I get around to doing anything.

The article on fuzzy text matching is a good example of the result of a day's work, where I finally sat down to clean it up, and document some results of my experimentation. During the clipping, it looked quite messy.

But the final version is a very useful reference for me, and might even be useful to others.

I recently came across an interesting blog entry criticizing the theory of andragogy, which I had seen referred to in several papers on MOOCs. Not only were the points in the blog post well made, but the post had attracted a range of comments, and some had even written entire blog posts in response. I felt the need to summarize and organize this information, so I used the clipping functionality to grab all the relevant text, and then used the side-by-side view to organize the article.

The side-by-side view is inspired by the split-screen view in Scrivener (of course, this is not something that Scrivener invented, but that is where I really learnt the power of having raw notes on one side, and the thing you are writing on the other side), and I use it to turn the raw clippings from PDFs I've read in Skim into higher level notes (as detailed here), but the functionality is available on any webpage. You can even edit any wikipage "with itself".

Using this approach, I was able to quickly gather information from a number of webpages, grab some pictures from a PDF, and organize it all into one succinct page. This gave me a much better overview of the different arguments, and gives me a good base to go out and learn more about andragogy, or to think more critically about whether the theory is relevant or not.

I made a quick screencast showing the tools in use, pretty much as I've narrated in this blog post.



Stian Håklev May 10, 2012 Toronto, Canada
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