Does technology make academics more productive?

November 27th, 2006 by shane

Thinking about the different ways academics use technology in their work leads to me to consider different types of academics, which I classify into three categories below. These describe the evolution of academic practice over time, as well as different types of academic. What kind of academic you are will be influenced by how long you have been working in your field, though its possible that some older generation academics will have embraced new technologies and working practices, as well as younger academics fitting characteristics of types 1 and 2.  

1. The dead tree academic

Before the advert of online journals, academics got their information from print books and journals. An academic would subscribe to a range of specialist journals and have the office filled with their many volumes.

Those articles not in their journals would have to be retrieved from the library and photocopied, or preprints sent and requested via the post.

Notes are made in paper notebooks, index cards, and on photocopies of articles.

References would most likely be stored in a paper based index card system.

2. The modern academic

This academic is still in love with the printed page, but makes much use of the Internet and computer databases for research.

They are less likely to subscribe to printed journals.

Uses internet to find references.

If reading a downloaded PDF, they will prefer to print it out and hand annotate, and keep the printed form of the article in their own library.

They most likely have an organised library of articles in a filing cabinet, or in various stages types of disorganised piles around the office.

They would use a non networked computer database for their reference management, such as Endnote.

They may keep a store of PDFs on their computer, and have them linked with references.

3. The cyber-academic

They visit the library very little, preferring content sources which are easily available online, though they are not against the ordering of a book from amazon.

They keep libraries of articles on their computer, but also might use the Internet as a library, believing that its often just as easy to retrieve a file from the internet than find it in their own collection.

They are more likely to use desktop file indexing tools to search their computer based libraries than to have a structured file system.

They are more likely to read PDF’s on screen then print them out.

Notetaking is predominately done on the computer, using note taking software like Evernote or Onenote, and annotation of the electronic PDF file.

They are constantly capturing what they find from the the internet, as storage space is not typically a limiting consideration.

They embrace on-line networking tools like Connotea, or Cite-u-like

They can easily work away from their desktop computer, because of reliance of online solutions, such as gmail for email.


There are idealised categories, and don’t necessarily describe real people, as some academics might fit characteristics across all three types. This blog so far has been geared to discussing the issues for the cyber-modern academic, and working implicitly on the assumption that technology can make us more productive, but:

Does technology make us more productive?

That’s a question we will be addressing in this blog over time. For now, in narrowing down the possible answers to that question, my particular interest is in managing content and information. One of the biggest differences between a type 1 academic and type 3 academic is the availability of information sources. Just through the passage of time, science progresses and more things are written. But the major difference is how easily those information sources are available. For a type 1 academic, having to find an article from the library would be a chore. You would only get an article that you really wanted to read. Now, we can get hundreds of articles on a given topic in seconds. We have information overload. Obviously, having more information available to us as academics has many benefits, but it also has its drawbacks, which is an interesting topics in itself. But my point is that technology is an invaluable tool to manage that information overload. For example, when my library of PDF’s runs into the thousands, full text search became the only practical way in which I could manage that library. I might look and skim many PDF’s when researching a topic, and it doesn’t make sense to print an article I might only briefly read only once. And since I am reading articles on the computer, it naturally follows to find tools that allow me to take notes on the computer as well. 

So, I am rather avoiding the question of whether technology increases our productivity in giving this answer: given that the way we way in which academics typically access, research and store content, technology is indispensable in managing that content. For most of us, we just can’t do without it. And since we have to use technology, we should find those tools and working practices that maximise our productivity, and make our lives easier. 


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7 Responses to “Does technology make academics more productive?”

  1. mainemcNo Gravatar Says:

    I like the three categories you cite, and think that you haven’t really gone far enough. The point of information overload these days is only exacerbated by the hyper-specialization that has occurred even in “universal” sciences like chemistry and physics. You often find duplication of results, for no malicious reason at all. It’s simply too hard to find information that has been worked on already.

    Solutions such as DevonThink Pro are helpful, if you have a collector that does some linking between files for you. At This Particular Outliner is a nice series in which issues of information management are regularly discussed, but it seems that DTPro is one of a breed.

    And yet, cyber-academic though I be (I use a Newton! ha!), I really don’t like DTPro and the other similar solutions. I stick to my Finder, aliases into various folders and such.

    By the way, that’s the kind of thing I would like to hear more about. Get opinionated, stop summarizing! Meaning, I guess: stop being an academic about academic productivity, and start spouting off. Ha ha. Just kidding. Sort of.

  2. Says:

    I would happily read PDFs from screen when new high-resolution non-glowing screens would be available (something like electronic-ink) meanwhile I will have to die from eye-strain.

  3. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Alex,

    Ah, the screen quest! The best solution I have found is a 1400 x 1050 14′ laptop screen (pixels are tiny) with a 3M filter. I’m considering adding a second laptop. I’m positioning the laptop vertically (easier to read papers that way). I also dislike the newer glowing screens that are so common in laptops.

    Having two small 1400 x 1050 screens with filters would be quite an experience.

  4. academic productivity » Information glut and hypertext sickness Says:

    [...] In my last post, I discussed the double edged sword of technology for productivity, and how information load makes technology indispensable for managing that load. With information glut the problem is largely self inflicted, and the solutions don’t all rely on technology. [...]

  5. TimothéeNo Gravatar Says:

    So true!

    I said the same things (or nearly the same) about students in my blog ( in french)

    Consider it as a “manual trackback”

  6. TonyNo Gravatar Says:

    Sure. Technology will help the society advance,including academic of course.

  7. Terminal BlockNo Gravatar Says:

    will help the society advance,including academic of course.

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