Building the researcher's best friend

One of the most pressing problems for someone conducting any research on personal initiative has to be information storage, access, and reproduction. Even if you’re someone who’s just going through interesting papers in pre-print servers and journals and want to quickly store text, excerpts, images, videos, diagrams, and/or graphs on the fly, you’ll notice that a multitude of storage options exist that are still not academically intelligent.

For instance, for starters, I could use an offline notepad that has a toggle-equipped LaTex-interpreter that I could use to quickly key in equations.

So, when I stumbled across this paper written by Joshi, et al, at Purdue University in 1994, I was glad someone had taken the time and trouble to think up the software-architecture of an all-encompassing system that would handle information in all media, provide options for cross-referencing, modality, multiple authors, subject-wise categorization, cataloguing, data mining, etc. Here’s an excerpt from the paper.

The electronic notebook concept is an attempt to emulate the physical notebook that we use ubiquitously. It provides an unrestricted editing environment where users can record their problem and solution specifications, computed solutions, results of various analyses, commentary text as well as handwritten comments.

The notebook interface is multimodal and synergetic, it integrates text, handwriting, graphics, audio and video in its input and output modes. It functions not only as a central recording mechanism, it also acts as the access mechanism for all the tools that support the user’s problem solving activities.

(I’d like to take a moment to stress on good data-mining because it plays an instrumental role in effecting serendipitous discoveries within my finite corpus of data, i.e. (and as a matter of definition) if the system is smart enough to show me something that it knows could be related to what I’m working on and something that I don’t know is related to what I’m working on, then it’s an awesome system.)

The Purdue team went on to implement a prototype, but you’ll see it was limited to being an interactive PDE-solver. If you’re looking for something along the same lines, then the Wolfram Mathematica framework has to be your best bet: its highly intuitive UI makes visualizing the task at hand a breeze, and lets you focus on designing practical mathematical/physical systems while it takes care of getting problems out of the way.

However, that misses the point. For every time I come across an interesting paper, some sections of which could fit well into a corpus of knowledge that I’m, at the time, assimilating, I currently use a fragile customization of the WordPress CMS that “works” with certain folders in my hard-drive. And by “works”, I mean I’m the go-between semantic interpreter – and that’s exactly what I need an automaton for. On one of my other blogs – unnamed here because it’s an online index of sorts for me – I have tagged and properly categorized posts that are actually bits and pieces of different research paths.

For products that offer such functionalities as the ones I’m looking for, I’m willing to pay, and I’m sure anyone will given how much more handy such tools are becoming by the day. Better yet if they’re hosted on the cloud: I don’t have to bother about backing up too much and can also enjoy the added benefit of “anywhere-access”.

For now, however, I’m going to get back to installing the California Digital Library’s eXtensible Text Framework (CDL-XTF) – a solution that seems to be a promising offline variant.

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