Automate Referencing on iPad with Shortcuts and Zotero

Zotero Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad.png

For as long as the iPad has been an excellent device for focused writing, it has never been good for citations and referencing. Referencing on iPad remains the final, stubborn piece of the puzzle to fully untether iOS from the Mac for academic writing. It appears, without exception, the iOS is not yet viewed by developers of referencing software as a fully fledged computing platform. That leaves us with a choice between poorly designed companion apps, or hacking together a solution of our own. I have opted for the latter, by configuring different workflows using Apple’s Shortcuts app and the excellent Zotero API.

What follows is not a primer on referencing, rather it is a means for managing citations on iPad, or even iPhone in a pinch. It assumes some knowledge of Zotero, but that is not difficult to acquire. These tips will be useful regardless of whether you work with both macOS and iOS, or do everything on an iPad. With a little help from iOS Shortcuts, referencing on iPad is that little bit less painful.

Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

Getting Material into Zotero on iOS

 

Maybe one day we'll get extensible browsers on iOS. Until then, we still have JavaScript bookmarklets. Most of your research is done online anyway, so using the Zotero Bookmarklet in a web browser works just fine. The only real caveat is you want to get your references from a source that Zotero will recognise. That will usually mean a university library, and my EZProxy shortcut can help with that.

Another convenient option is to use the WorldCat Catalog. The WorldCat option has the added virtue of not needing a login, which makes it a hassle free way to get full bibliographic records. I have setup a shortcut that can be invoked from the widget to send a search query to WorldCat, and open the results in Safari. 1 Once you have the bibliographic record up, as long as you are logged in to Zotero, the Bookmarklet will scrape everything you need to populate your library with that record. Download the shortcut here:

WorldCat Web Search Shortcut

Cite as You Write on iOS

There are different ways to come at this. The method you choose will depend on a few variables. The biggest distinction is likely to be whether you work iOS only, or you also operate a Mac. However, there is also a question of how complex your work is, and whether or not you want to automate the process entirely, or you’re happy to manage a few aspects manually. If you are looking for the more comprehensive option, see the section below on rendering a bibliography.

Zotero Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

 

If you write exclusively on iOS, and all you want to do is insert references from your Zotero library as you write, the following shortcut will do that. Invoke it from the widget to search your collection, and it will place a formatted in-text citation on the clipboard, eg. (Dickens, 1837, p. 21) 2  

Zotero Cite as You Write Shortcut

See below for how to automate the creation of your reference list.

Cite as You Write on iOS for macOS Users

Referecing on iPad

If you are also using a Mac, you only need to know how you intend to process your finished works so you know which cite key style to use. If you intend to use Zotero’s own RTF scanner, your citations must be enclosed by {curly braces}. If you’re a Pandoc user, no doubt you already know you need [square brackets], among other things. 3 You can download a workflow for either here.

Zotero RTF Shortcut

Zotero Pandoc Shortcut

Automate Rendering a Reference List or Bibliography

Depending on the complexity of your needs, this is where it can get tricky. If you're writing anything genuinely long form — a dissertation, thesis, or a book — then this is the last remaining task where it is useful to have access to a Mac, or PC if necessary. That doesn’t mean you need to own one. Workarounds exist to make this possible from an iPad.

The Simple Method

For the most simple version of this, Zotero can produce a bibliography online, but it’s not pretty. Fortunately, Shortcuts can retrieve a formatted reference list from the Zotero API. If you want to use the Cite as You Write shortcut from above, you can retrieve the reference list, or bibliography from the relevant collection with the following shortcut.

Zotero Bibliography Shortcut

Note, these workflows don’t know what references are in your document, there is no way to automate that via Shortcuts. They are by no means perfect, so proof your work carefully.

Run the Zotero RTF Scanner from an iPad (almost)

Should you wish to automate the process completely, you will need access to a desktop to scan your work through the Zotero RTF scanner. The good news about keeping your references in Zotero, being a web service you can make use of on demand computing. You don’t need to maintain your Zotero library in a local database, it remains in the cloud. That means you only need temporary access to a desktop for the sole purpose of running your work through Zotero. 4

Amazon Workstations

If you cannot access a desktop directly, there is always Amazon Workstations. It’s free to set one up, and you’ll only need it briefly. Be careful to choose an option available on the free tier though, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise when a bill arrives. The iPad app for Amazon Workstations is useable enough for this. You can manage your referencing on iPad with Zotero, then setup a workstation to run the finished project through the scanner.

Portable Apps Zotero

Often on campus it is easy enough to access a desktop, but installing software can be a problem.  For that situation, the unofficial Portable Apps version of Zotero should do the trick.  Install it on a portable drive and run it on demand. To be honest, I like this option more than using AWS.

Beyond Referencing on iPad

Zotero’s Web API with the Shortcuts app is presently ās good as it gets for referencing on iPad. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have tried everything else, nothing comes close where iOS is concerned. From its communal, open source development, to its stance on privacy, Zotero is an antidote to the proprietary systems of giant academic publishers. 5 I cannot speak highly enough of the Zotero service. If you can spring for it, I recommend upgrading the storage option for both the utility, and to support their work. US$20 will buy you 2GB for a year, which is plenty for PDF documents.

For Mac users, Zotero is not the only solution I can recommend. I have started testing the native macOS referencing solution, Bookends, recently. I can tell you, it is impressive. I will post a proper review at some point, but there is a free trial available. Both these solutions, Zotero and Bookends, offer and excellent alternative to EndNote, Mendely, and the other big commercial referencing solutions. But at this point, for academic writing on iOS, Zotero is the best option we have currently. Whether you use these workflows, or shortcuts as they are or adapt them to your needs, I hope you find them useful. If you need any help configuring them, don't be afraid to contact me via one of the methods to your left.

Happy writing.

 

 

  1. If you use an alternate browser, you can change the final action to open the results there.
  2. If you are using footnotes, I have a post in the works to cover that
  3. I have a follow up post that will cover using Pandoc on iOS. It includes a shortcut for extracting citekeys for the Better BibTeX Plugin
  4. Unfortunately, the RTF scanner is a plugin, so it isn’t available online or through the API.  
  5. EndNote once sued Zotero for having the audacity to offer users a means for transferring their data. Mendely is run by similar ghouls. 

iOS Automation, Shortcuts: Workflows for Study and Research

Ios Automation Workflow Shortcuts.png

For nerds wanting to automate their devices, iOS 12 is Christmas. This week's new version of iOS brings with it significant developments to user automation. There has never been a better time to get to grips with iOS automation. Between the new academic year in the northern hemisphere, and the release of Shortcuts, I figure now is a good time to share some workflows I have built specifically for academic work and study.  Among the good news is existing Workflow routines are fully compatible with the new Shortcuts app, so I can start sharing the workflows I have built up.

Academic Shortcuts: EZProxy Library Workflow

This first workflow is as about as basic as automation can get, and yet it is one of the best timesaving tricks I have set up. I use this shortcut every day to access the full pdf versions of articles I find via Google or DuckDuckGo.

Most university libraries have an EZ Proxy server that can be used to reroute a URL through the library. If you come across an article you want to access, instead of tediously searching for it again via your library, you can use this workflow to access it via EZProxy. When you install the workflow, it will ask for the EZProxy address for your university library, so search for first and have it copied to the clipboard before you install the workflow.

Download: EZProxy Workflow

Citation Scanner Workflow: Scan Barcodes for Formatted Citations

ios automation

I have a much longer post in the works to cover managing citations with Workflow shortcuts, so consider this a preview.

There are a lot of web services and APIs one can find to format citations, but sometimes you need something simple. This shortcut uses a handy little web service called Ottobib that can return formatted citations via URL from ISBN numbers. I have used it to setup my own book scanner. It takes the ISBN from the barcode, queries the Worldcat database, and returns a formatted citation of the book in your choice of style. Consider it a basic version of Citationsy.

Download: Citation Scanner Workflow

Docverter Workflow: Convert Documents on iOS with Pandoc

ios automation

For academic users, the real value in using Pandoc is in the wonderful citeproc filter that formats referencing. Unfortunately, Docverter doesn’t include that part of Pandoc. What it can do, however, is a fine job of converting markdown, or HTML documents into other file formats. 1

I recently highlighted the dual document feature of Notebooks, along with that app’s support for multiple file formats. One thing Notebooks can’t do is create docx files for Microsoft Word. As much as I would like to avoid Word altogether, that remains wishful thinking in academia. Not only can this workflow help with that problem, it will save you from trying one of those janky conversion apps on the app store. It is also worth mentioning the other wonderful text editors this opens up. Drafts 5 is the first that comes to mind.

Download: Docverter Workflow

If you find these workflows, or shortcuts — whatever we are calling them now — useful, keep an eye out for more posts on iOS automation.

  1. It can handle LaTeX, and a couple other formats too. I suspect if you’re using those formats you will have no trouble adapting the workflow to your needs

Making Slides | kieranhealy.org

This is timely from Kieran Healy . I’m just now working on a review of the wonderful Markdown slide deck app Deckset.  This is as good a primer on presentation technique as I have come across.

It doesn’t cover the tools. That makes sense, the tools shouldn’t matter — if they can get out of your way that is. I would argue, to put this advice into practice means allocating your focus away from the kerning of application settings and onto ideas. The right tool can give you the means to do that. It is worth thinking about, if you're going to head advice such as this;

The actual slides are the most immediately visible but also the least substantively important part of your material. While I’m going to highlight a few rules and techniques about making decent slides, do not lose sight of the fact that if your paper is bad, your talk is going to be bad too.

The paper is not the talk. The paper is what the talk is about. In some fields, the talk can be very closely related to the paper, and there are still people trained to “read the paper” in the old-fashioned sense. But this is increasingly rare. In most fields, especially when presenting the results of a data analysis, the presenter must condense, summarize, and highlight the important parts of their own work. The paper is the most important thing; the talk is about the paper; and you use your slides to help you give a better talk.

Setapp Continues to Impress with Further Updates

Setapp has a growing collection of apps for education users, with few gaps in the collection the service is becoming a compelling option for students and academics alike

Setapp has a growing collection of apps for education users, with few gaps in the collection the service is becoming a compelling option for students and academics alike

Setapp shows no sign of slowing down, as it adds more quality apps and essentail services. Not that long ago, powerful FTP client and Finder alternative Forklift was added to the stable. For science students and researchers, they have added the wonderfully designed digital lab book Findings, and I recently mentioned the addition of 2Do. In the past couple of days Setapp have announced the addition of third-party Gmail client Boxy.

These are all excellent additions to an already compelling service, but the development that I find most pleasing is the service being translated into Spanish. Not only is this a boon for the Mac users among the more than 400 million Spanish speakers worldwide, but it is a sure sign that Setapp is here for the long haul. If you haven't already checked it out, you have nothing to lose, there is a 30-day trial — no credit card required. If you decide to roll with it from there, you can either pay US$10 per month, or grab the educational discount by paying US$60 annually. With the growing trend toward subscriptions, this is starting to look like a serious bargain.

It is getting harder to see where the gaps are in the collection for education users, unless you are wedded to mainstream giants for your work, like MS Office. The one obvious omission at this point is citation management. Otherwise, from mind mapping to timeline generation, your choice of world class text editors, and the dedicated Studies App, it is safe to say they have you pretty well covered.

To be clear, I'm not affiliated with Setapp in any way, this is genuine enthusiasm for an approach to the app market that I feel is promising for everyone.

If you are interested, you can Download the trial here: Setapp

Best Apps for Academic Writing on the iPad

Ulysses Ipad Writing 1

This year has seen significant changes to the iPad. Changes have either explicitly relevant to education users, or favourable by virtue of the way developments to both hardware and software suit the various use cases for students, teachers, and researchers alike. With the upcoming release of iOS 11 about to address a number of long-standing usability issues, the iPad is becoming a serious choice for getting your college work done.

I find the inane arguments that do the rounds pitting the iPad against the Mac, or PC, to be mostly pointless. But, to the question of whether or not you can now use the iPad as your primary device for your college or university work, the answer is a resounding of course you can. In fact, in a lot of ways the interaction model and user experience of working on an iPad is not only a good choice for some people, but the best choice. For one, although there has been a quiet evolution of multitasking on iOS, the iPad remains a uniquely focused device for singular tasks. The advantage to such a focused user experience is an especially obvious when it comes to writing. Given that so much of the academic work is writing, embracing a device that, in its design, has a tendency to encourage less distraction can only help.

I would go further, however, to say that the iPad is uniquely enjoyable as a writing device, and continues to improve in this regard all the time. It has seemed obvious for some time that the tablet is an ideal form factor for other academic tasks – namely note-taking and presentation – but if you haven’t yet used it for serious writing, there is no time like the present. With that in mind, I thought I could offer a leg up on the best apps to use for writing on the iPad.

Word processors

These days I prefer not to work in a standard word processor, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid them altogether. Access to all the usual suspects for word processing is just as good on the iPad, if not better in some cases. Microsoft Word, to my mind, has always been a bloated mess that I can’t get far enough away from. Fortunately, if you absolutely have no choice but to use it, the necessity of paring it down for iOS has resulted in an infinitely more useable piece of software. Although, if you do feel you have to stick with a standard word processor, then you are probably better of sticking with Apple’s own Pages. Not only is Pages compatible with Word, it has all the advantages that come with being a native app. Pages has also had some intriguing updates lately, adding LaTex support for mathematical equations for example.

Beyond Word and Pages, there is always Google Docs, which has admittedly improved on iOS since the inclusion of multitasking support. Google has also sown up deals with universities everywhere, which often means unlimited file storage is available. While Apple has started adding collaboration support to their iWork apps, Google Docs remains the standard bearer for simple collaboration.

If you are looking for something different in a word processor, Mellel is developed with features specifically designed for academic work. Most of these things exist in other word processors, but Mellel has made them design features. This means the document outline, footnotes, bibliography and so on, are part of the workflow rather than an afterthought. As I cover below, I do my own long form writing in Scrivener these days, but Mellel is a solid choice for anybody looking to break away from the big names while keeping with a classic word processor.

Markdown Apps

A large amount of the writing I do is in Markdown these days. I briefly outlined a case for why I think that is a good idea for note-taking here, but the portability and future-proofing are just as relevant to all forms of writing. If you're not already writing in Markdown, this is not the kind of article that will persuade you to start. If you are already a Markdown convert, you are well served by the text editors available on iOS. As for my preferred app, I have a couple.

Ulysses iPad Writing
Ulysses remains the most obvious choice for most new users of Markdown

I have already praised Ulysses a couple of times here.  It is one of the best writing apps available period, so ideal for writing essays and research papers. Ulysses is an excellent combination of a lean and distraction free text editor with a more integrated writing tool. It includes subtle features to bridge the gap between rich text and plain text writing. Along with built-in tutorials, this also makes it ideal for coaching new users into using Markdown. The syncing between Mac and iPad is seamless. The universal app on iOS also means that should you wish to indulge in note-taking, or even more detailed writing on your iPhone, your text will all end up in the same place.

Ulysses has also embraced iOS automation. Integration with Workflow has essentially made the app extensible, allowing users to adapt their own automations for getting text in and out of the app. I am mot the most proficient Workflow creator, but I have managed to hack together some simple workflows that allow me to gather and annotate links for posting to this site. For example, throughout the week I gather links for the regular Week Links post. I store them in Drafts as I collect them, but that is idiosyncratic, you can go straight to Ulysses if you would prefer. You can download a copy of the workflow here, if you want to see how it works. At the end of the week, I process the document from Drafts to Ulysses using this Workflow . Granted, these are workflows specifically for web writing, but there is no reason you cannot adapt them for academic needs. Workflow can do practically anything, provided your imagination and patience can drive it to do so. Formatting citations, for example. This is something I intend to come back to in detail, very soon.

If you write for the web, Ulysses has publishing integration for WordPress and Medium. This feature alone has been enough to pique my attention, and start tempting me away from Editorial, a long time favourite on iOS. These are all great things to have in an iOS tech editor, but the real power of Ulysses  is in its capacity to organise text on the fly. Breaking down sections, merging them and moving them around is factored into the DNA of the app. What you end up with is an app that has all the elegance of a minimal text editor with the extremely clever ability to manage serious writing projects.

Best Writing Apps iPad
iA Writer's elegant, minimalist design

As an alternative to Ulysses, if you want something even more minimalist, an app I have always liked is iA Writer . An example of opinionated design, iA Writer provides a wonderfully spartan, and focused writing environment. The app is the product of two things. First, an obsessive attention to detail in responsive typography. And second, the design principle that form follow content. The result is an app that remains deceptively powerful, while getting out of the way of the writing process. Right down to the inclusion of content blocks for managing embedded media. It was iA Writer on the Mac that first converted me to Markdown. The iOS app is not only faithful to the look and feel of the desktop app, but a pleasure to use on the iPad. As more and  more apps smuggle in price rises as they push into the world of subscriptions, the contrast in value is stark with an app like iA Writer that you pay for once.

Next Level Automation

Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial's Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial. Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial's Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial.
If anything, managing citations is major halting point for academic writing on the iPad — unless you do it manually, like an animal. It is easy enough to hack your way around it for shorter works, but the more in depth the referencing required, the more tricky it becomes. Most, if not all of the major referencing management  conceive of the iPad as a companion device. At best this means apps are designed for reading and annotation, and not for referencing per se. I currently use Papers, which is fine app on the Mac, but is bereft of options on iOS. Luckily, the one thing it can do is export a citekey, and Editorial can do the rest.

Best iPad Text Editors

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. If you are interested in how long the list of iOS text editors has become, take a look at Brett Terpstra's iTextEditors project. Quantity is clearly no obstacle. Quality is another matter. I have put some stock in both design and automation as delimiters. On that basis, 1Writer is the final app I will mention in this category. 1Writer is another well designed app with its own automation engine. If you have any JavaScript chops, you can bend it to your will.

Scrivener for Long Form

Finally, this brings me to Scrivener. If you are working on any kind of long form writing, there is really nothing like it. I mentioned the way that Ulysses can cleverly organise text above. While that is true, it does meet with some limits were complex projects are concerned. I put this down to a consequence of maintaining some of the strengths of that app, adding certain features would interrupt its design.

Best iOS Writing Apps Thesis

Scrivener on the other hand, is a kind of self-contained writing studio.  It has unparalleled features for organising long-form writing projects, including the gathering of research materials and a plethora of tools for mapping, contextualising, and annotating text.  Originally developed for novelists, Scrivener has also steadily gained an academic user base of both students and researchers. As far as I can tell, the only people not using it for manuscript work either haven’t heard of it, or haven’t given it sufficient time to grasp its incredible usefulness.

If you are working on a dissertation or thesis, or a book of any kind, then you will be hard pressed to find a better tool. Although designed for longer work, that doesn’t preclude its usefulness for other kinds of writing. As you can probably tell, I have a penchant for separating writing tasks in specific tools, but I wouldn't advocate indulging in that kind of madness if you can help it. Scrivener excels at any kind of text that requires organisation but it is also on the surface of it a text editor. You can use it to write what you like.

As for using it on iOS. While it started life as desktop only software, the iPad version has near feature parity now. In fact,  it was selected among the App Store best of 2016. Again, this is something I have in mind to cover in significant detail here, time willing.

 

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part II

Automation Utilities

Picking up where I left off with the first Mac automation post; we covered some of the more well known Automation utilities on macOS in Text Expander, Automator, and Hazel. To be fair, at least one of the areas I cover this time around is likewise pretty well known, but I also want to highlight a couple of unique utilities that qualify as automation tools. These tools have both explicit and implicit utility for study, research, or indeed any academic related workflows. As with all such suggestions, the limit to what you can do with this kind of software will be somewhere between what you can dream up, and how much time you are willing (or able) to sink into them.

Popclip

 

Automating Academic Workflows

Popclip is one of those apps that highlights a gap in design reciprocity between iOS and macOS. We have always had the right-click [1] context menu to access functionality in OS X or macOS, but Popclip brings an interpretation of the context menu from iOS back to the Mac. The need to port contextual functionality such as copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad led to the creation of the ubiquitous black speech-bubble that appears from a long press on those devices. Popclip takes that idea, brings it to the Mac, and makes it extensible with customizable actions. I have become so used to using it that if ever I’m on a Mac without it I get a little lost. I use it for text transformations [2], Shortening URLs, dictionary and thesaurus lookups, adding tasks to my task manager, adding links to Pinboard or Instapaper, adding references to Papers, translations, and the list just keeps going. This link will take you to the pre-packaged extensions that are available, but the good news doesn’t end there. Not only will a Github search reveal many more ingenious uses for Popclip, and you can even code your own. To get you started with customization, check out Brett Terpstra’s Popclip Extension Generator

Alfred, Launchbar and others (…but mostly Alfred)

Automating Academic Workflows

 

A lot of Mac nerds would argue that a Launcher is the purist’s starting point for workflow automation. If you want to keep your hands on the keyboard, then using a launcher is essential. Spotlight has developed well beyond its basic search capabilities in the past few years to the point where, although still relatively basic, it is much more than a mere search engine and application launcher nowadays. What’s more, Spotlight comes baked right into macOS, so a lot of people will find that hitting command (⌘) space will allow you to do a lot more with the keyboard than you realised.

Alfred WorkflowsGoing beyond Spotlight to incorporate automation is where the best third-party launchers excel. As far as which launcher is the best? That honestly depends on who you talk to, but there seems to be a fairly solid consensus that the contenders are LaunchBar, and my personal favourite Alfred.

Both LaunchBar and Alfred are limitlessly extensible; LaunchBar with Actions and Alfred with Workflows. It is difficult to say how one might choose between them [3], but you may find the keystrokes for one, or the other, more intuitive for the way you work. Other than that admittedly abstract and vague selection criteria [4], it is fair to say the user community around Alfred appears much more engaged and accessible. Both the official site and forum, and the unofficial Packal site, are loaded with workflows, advice and friendly automation ninjas willing to help you down a rabbit hole, or back out of one.

Again, I use Alfred for all kinds of things. The screenshot of my workflows is only part of the picture. Searching my Papers library, converting documents with Pandoc[5], searching my Pinboard bookmarks, making currency conversions, task management input, natural-language entry of calendar events, time-stamping notes, Image Optimisation, file management. Alfred is an onion, and in reality I have barely peeled back the first layer. There is a built-in clipboard manager, and text-expander style snippet function. Anything that you can automate via scripting can be triggered via a launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar, which means they capable of all kinds of complicated tasks. As a bonus, they can manage the simple things too, I even lock, logoff and shutdown my Mac with Alfred – and Alfred also has an iOS remote app that allows me to control my Mac from my iPhone or iPad.

These are not the only two apps of this kind, of course. There are die-hards still using the OG launcher, Quicksilver, and given it is open source and free, for some it remains worth a look. Another old favourite of long-time Mac users is Butler, from Many Tricks. There is the lightweight Launcher [6] from Nulana, which is reknown for its advanced calculator and script launcher. Finally, a couple I feel are worth keeping an eye on, the open sauce Zazu App that bills itself as an extensible launcher for ‘hackers, creators and dabblers’, and perhaps the most interesting new app in tis area Lacona, a natural language launcher built on Node.js that already has web automation triggers through IFTTT. [7]

Dropzone

Automating Academic Workflows

Dropzone is another extensible utility that can thread automation actions into your workflow. Another example of an app that is incredibly useful even in its most basic use cases, or can be bent to one’s will with a little ingenuity. The basic premise is very simple, Dropzone is a menu bar app that extends the drag and drop capabilities of your Mac, it houses destinations and automation actions on the ‘drop zone’. You can use it to hold, copy or move files between apps [8], configure it to upload files to cloud services or an FTP server, or social media sites. The real power of the app lies in the customisable actions – I have scripts for renaming files, stripping formatting from text, making animated GIFs, shortening URLs, and so on – but Dropzone also makes for an excellent conduit to other parts of your system. For example, as part of my workflow for posting images to this site I will take a screen shot and drag it to the images folder configured in Dropzone, from there Hazel will invoke an Automator workflow [9] to resize the image, then pass the file to ImageOptim for compression and removal of personal metadata. I could easily automate the whole process, but I don’t want every single screenshot I take sent to the same place, so Dropzone allows me to have a little more control over the file picking.


  1. Or option-click for you die hard, old-school Apple nerds  ↩

  2. Such as capitalisation, Sentence-case for formatting titles, clearing formatting, hyphenating etc  ↩

  3. Some people solve this by using them both, but I’m yet to find something I need LaunchBar for that I can’t do with Alfred  ↩

  4. And the fact the Alfred’s developers have a commendably irreverent name Running with Crayons  ↩

  5. Rather than using the command line  ↩

  6. Yes, an imaginative name that  ↩

  7. Lacona is available with Setapp, a subscription app store I intend to cover soon  ↩

  8. This might sound silly, but for anyone working with fullscreen apps or split-screen it is seriously handy  ↩

  9. The same workflow in the previous article  ↩

EFF Annual Report: ‘Who Has Your Back? Government Data Requests 2017’

The linked report can give you a better idea of what you are getting into when you trust your private data to the many apps and services that have become so entwined with our daily lives. Privacy and security being the perennial issues they are, this annual report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation should be mandatory reading for students and researchers. Although the idea that Universities themselves have always been at the vanguard of free speech, academic freedom and individual rights is an easily dispelled myth, generally students – and many academics – have been. Regardless, this is something that everybody needs to be across. As the EFF puts it

 

In this era of unprecedented digital surveillance and widespread political upheaval, the data stored on our cell phones, laptops, and especially our online services are a magnet for government actors seeking to track citizens, journalists, and activists…

 

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I

If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details, signatures or often repeated phrases.

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.

Automator

Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 2
Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.

Hazel

Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 3
Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automator Workflow