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Category: PhD

A Clear & Present Opportunity

Time for Better Literature Research

Universities and reading glasses were invented roughly simultaneously (coincidence?), during the 13th century. There were counties for students to have books copied for studying of which I won’t waste our time going through the details of how it wasted their time. It seems however, that not much has changed. Today’s academic is more likely to print out the sources for their literature review than to read it in digital form (Walsh, 2016), even though there are many different types of digital devices to read them on, from reflective to transmissive tablets and from laptops to desktops.

I am not writing about the pros and cons of paper versus digital for general reading but I do mean to highlight that there is a real opportunity to build an ecosystem where digital reading of professional material (someone one reads to learn, not for enjoyment primarily) can benefit from the potentially connected nature of digital text environments.

We will necessarily have to start with PDFs since they are the dominant form of academic knowledge transmission units, though of course support ePubs and other formats as well.


The suggested flow is simply this:


A user reads a document for their research and highlights interesting sections, writes notes in the margin and also generally about the document. The user also also jots down ideas as the reading and research process progresses. Furthermore, the reading applications gives the user a rich set of facilities to view the document as she sees fit, including flexible ways to access keywords, summaries, abstracts, links, references and connections and so on, some of which we have implemented in Liquid Author and Flow.


All the literature review the user has read is accessible through keyword search, including specifying whether to only search highlighted text, annotations, notes or full text. When the user copies text from a document and pastes it into the document their are authoring, all the salient citation information is included and is copied across (since this is not possible by default, they system will need a fast and elegant way for the user to help add this to the document on opening/at leisure and in future automatically use what authoring systems will append as meta-information).

All the literature review the user has yet to read is also accessible through searches and can be bunched based on keywords, citations and other criteria.

All the literature the user has yet to access, which is connected to the users work by being cited in current work is also accessible.

The visual space of connecting literature can be developed by anyone since the connectors will be made clearly available. The weblau is one direction which can be powerfully useful in this regard.

A more Liquid Reader

This could make the literature review process a truly liquid, smooth and rich affair. This is not rocket science or heading far out into the unknown, this can provide clear and immediate benefits.

We have started experimental work around this workflow, with the Liquid | Reader but this will require more investment to continue til completion, particularly since the standards of searching for academic document is so incoherent and therefore many searches engines will need to be strung together.

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Les Session, 5th of February 2018

I went to see Les with two questions based on my previous blog post: Can this be a PhD and if so, can we make a plan? The answers were yes provided I do a lot of work. Excellent.

The recording with Les was started mid-sentence since he is telling me what his interpretation of my project and I didn’t want to interrupt him since I think it’s spot on:


Also met with Chris while down there and had some interesting conversation.

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The Value of Different Views of Text (PhD outline for Les)

THIS IS NOT MY 9 MONTH REPORT, it is just a brief outline of my plan, in order to get feedback from my advisors as to whether this is what my 9 month and PhD can be about, and if so, to get help to organise a plan. 

The Value of Different Views of Text 

My PhD research concerns the value of different views of text and the cost/benefit of switching between the views, with the premise that effective switching allows the user to practically access multiple views with unique characteristics will can contribute to a more thorough understanding of the ‘symbol space’ that the views present, whereas slow or cognitively heavy switching negates the benefits of alternative views: 

Authoring a Document 

Authoring is the act of structuring knowledge into a document.  

The knowledge itself is not what the author interacts with – the author interacts with symbols – in the form of conceptual units present in spoken, and ultimately (where the textual document is concerned); written words. These symbols are not transcribed from the author’s mind into the document in a single act when constructing anything but the most basic of notes, they are written and moved about. The conceptual space they are moved around in is then a symbol space, the central concept for which my thesis that different visual presentations of can benefit or be hindered by different visual interactions.  

1) Research  

Authoring an academic document starts with literature review research which produces knowledge artefact entities, most of  which are stored in the form of symbols (text, images) such as notes, annotations, data, and listings of useful sources to cite, media which can be converted into symbols (speech to text), or media which can be referred to from symbols (map coordinates). 

The author will also likely do first hadn’t research which results in first-hand research which is also stored primarily as symbols. 

2) Making Notes 

Alongside the research the author is also jotting down thoughts – also as symbols. 

3) Organising And Structuring The Symbol Space 

The next step is organising the explicit symbols (jotted down thoughts, notes, annotations, sources, data key terms or glossary terms as well as other media). 

This can be done in many ways, including the word processing document directly, with pen on a large piece of paper, on small Post-Its® on a board or with a digital concept map. Currently a digital concept map is not part of the same piece of software which performs the word processing function and as such the switch is on the order of an import-export mechanic.  

Concept Mapping 

The process of tying together concepts for the author to understand the material and communicate it for the benefit of the reader can include clustering/grouping, labelling and connecting the symbols.  

The visual representation means something to the author, both the proximity of the symbols; their groupings, linear connections, associations, framings and the appearance of the individual symbols; texture (font, size, colour etc.). 

The resulting document receives structure linearly, indicated through the spine of the headings/outline as well as with multiple internal and external, explicit and implicit connections/links. 

4) Copy Editing  

The document is then edited into a coherent form which is published to become literature for review for others. 

Value of A Concept Map Symbol View… 

Our language is rife with references to references to the value having a different representation of something, with phrases such as getting a better perspective, seeing another angle, see what’s going on, having an overview, oversight, being someone with a vision, and the importance of interaction, of getting to grips with the problem and having a grasp of the situation.  

… V.S. The Need for a Linear Argument Symbol View 

While there is clear value in rich views of our information while working with it, conversely we talk about the need to spell our an argument and present logically – in many ways the production of an academic argument is linearisation.  

Concept Map x Linear 

The two modes give us an impression of how deep it goes in our evolution to be able to examine something we don’t understand in different ways, with freedom to change our view at will, but to present our argument cleanly in a linear manner. 

This basic switch between non-linearity and linearity represents a profound change in mental stance and as such deserves deeper examination.  

I therefore argue that the development of a richly dynamic concept map space in a word processor can employ more of the human brain (by using our powerful visual processing abilities to complement our prefrontal cortex where we do higher level thinking),  

I therefore propose that my research topic question should be to look into how each view; linear and non-linear, can provide more intellectual value to the user when used in combination, in order to increase the users value of both. 

The Research Question  

What views are optimal for organising and structuring the symbol space, which for interaction with the linear argument and how can switching between the views be done at the smallest cognitive cost? 


My plan is to compare views of the same document, as frames, providing me with the opportunity to perform practical investigation into how editing behaviours might evolve, or be hindered by the various views. 

I will then compare various methods of switching between the views in a macOS environment to measure which method causes the smallest possible cognitive load. 

First though, I will improve my 9 month report and integrate this perspective and plan.  


To better understand the aspects of this symbol space I have started a glossary for symbol space terms here: 

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