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The Paperless Office and Research Practice

February 7th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I spent most of the weekend clearing up my office. It was one of those jobs which starts out as a small thing – I had just run out of shelf space and ends up as a major spring cleaning operation. The biggest job was throwing out paper – bags full of it. What was all this paper? Most of it was photo copies or print outs of various academic papers and reports. there must have been hundreds. And to my surprise I realized that I had read or at least flicked through mots of them at one time or another in the past. But certainly not lately. I would not have had a clue where to find any of them, even if I remembered I had them. So why did I photocopy and print so much. Is it that in those days I did more academic research and now work more on development projects? I don’t think so. Or is it that the internet is dumbing us down? Do I spend all my days following tweets rather than reading anything serious. Although I don’t subscribe to the dumbing down thesis there certainly are changes in the way we access knowledge. I originally intended to write a short blog reflecting on my clean up. but the ideas have grown so here is the introduction to what I guess will be a mini series this week about how we are using technology for research and knowledge sharing.

I am old enough to remember card index files as the way of searching for books and papers in the Swansea University library when I was a student. And much later, when I was appointed as a researcher at the University of Bremen, I used to travel to the UK to photocopy papers in the University of Surrey library (this was the nearest university library to Gatwirk and thank goodness, there were no Ryan Air type weight restrictions).

Why not access on line resources? Because quite simply even 15 years ago there were few research resources available online. of course that has rapidly changed. Even with the annoyance of DRM restrictions, it is usually fairly easy to access research papers and outputs, even in smaller research areas.

One of the other big changes we tend to forget is search. In 1995 search engines were fairly rudimentary. However we may moan about them, we now have choice of a wide range of pretty good search engines  and with persistence can usually find what we are looking for online.

Other changes? Ubiquitous, or near ubiquitous access. Most researchers, at least in the richer industrialized countries are online most of the time. And one of the big changes, at least in explaining why I had so much paper stored, is improvements in screen technology. Nowadays we even try to read documents on handheld devices. Even five or six years ago screens were small and lacked the resolution to make reading a comfortable experience. So we printed everything. I would go to the university to sue their fast laser printer to print collections of papers I had downloaded at home for the internet.

In this blog I have focused mainly on the change sin technology and how they impact on research. In the next entry I will look more at  socio technical changes and in particular at social software and changing research practice.

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