an unhealthy paranoia? on ‘losing’ academic work

You know those films you see where the author loses their manuscript? They only have one laboriously typed copy. They haven’t got to the photo-copier yet. Nooooooo… it blows away in a freak storm … Or, they’ve written in longhand in notebooks and an evil stranger happens on them and steals them and then they publish them as their own work… or the computer gets destroyed in a freak tornado…. Or… Or… The list of possible disasters is endless.

Welcome to my nightmare.

I did my PhD in the days of floppy discs. I was so paranoid about losing my text that I had several sets of discs stashed around the house and at work. Like a greedy and irrational squirrel, I also kept various versions – whole text, chapter by chapter, text file, word file. I even went so far as to buy a fireproof safe drawer, just in case.

I’ve got more slightly more casual about texts in subsequent years. But I still manage to make at least three copies of everything on top of the usual automated computer back-up. These days I use cloud storage as well as an external hard and a thumb drive. The reduction in size of storage gadgetry and the development of digital online repositories means that all those endangered materials are transportable as well as retrievable, even if the ownership of the cloud based materials is pretty questionable.

The thing that I am NOW most paranoid about is my Endnote library. I’ve been using Endnote since 1997, and now have over 9000 references stored in it. About half of these are properly key-worded with abstracts. I’m at the point where Endnote is a kind of cerebral prosthesis – an outside memory of my reading on which I’m as dependent as I am on my actual ‘inside’ memory. In fact, I now operate as if I have both an external and internal reference system. I often find myself saying to people – “I can’t remember what this book was, my internal Endnote is not completely reliable, I’ll have to look it up”. Even though my actual reference library and I are not really physically joined, I still feel like a bibliographic cyborg. So the very worst thing I can now imagine is that something happens to this record of my academic reading.

I am also worried about losing books. I rarely use my university library for anything but journals. It often doesn’t have what I want because my choices of books are too esoteric, or their budget is too stretched. And if they do purchase something I want, then there is usually a giant waiting list. A long time ago I decided that one of the things I needed was a professional library and so I’ve always bought the key texts that I needed, as well as books that I am interested in. Being of a somewhat interdisciplinary inclination, this means I now have a pretty eclectic – and large – collection spread between home and work.

However, I’m also paranoid about these books. I lend them to people and then some of them don’t come back. I often fight with myself about whether to keep lending them out or to just keep them for myself – all mine, all mine precious. So far, I’m still lending, but in concert with a mental ledger. I’ll lend you my books until the point at which you don’t bring one back. Then, no more. But when I moved to the UK, my books came in a big container, a tin can on the sea, and I did get along without them. In fact, there are many of them still in their boxes some ten years later, proving that I didn’t need them at all.

But I did bring my Endnote and text files in my personal luggage.
It turns out I’m really most paranoid about losing my writing, and my virtual library, the basis of my academic work. I can’t imagine recovering from losing these, although I dare say I would if it ever came to it.

But what about you? What of your academic work are you most paranoid about losing and how do you go about making sure that this doesn’t happen?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Endnote, losing work, paranoia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to an unhealthy paranoia? on ‘losing’ academic work

  1. brendagouws says:

    Hi Pat. I’m also paranoid about losing information. I keep my chapters for my PhD; all my study material, which has been printed out, in the form of pdfs; EndNote and NVivo; as well as various other PhD related files backed up on my laptop and my USB (using the Briefcase which works brilliantly and is done every day). The work that I’m currently busy with is also in the Cloud. In addition, my EndNote is backed up to EndNote Web. But the thing I’m most paranoid about losing is NVivo and all the related coding that I’ve done for literature reviews, methodology, data and my research journal. On top of this I back up everything to an external hard drive every now and again. And I have to say that I’ve had to call on this backup occasionally!


  2. Simon Bailey says:

    I used to be so bad at this – I’m still not great, but I got a major scare just after I handed in my PhD, my laptop went into meltdown, and it was at this point that I discovered that I had not made any back ups for quite some time, I forget exactly how long, but it would have been disastrous. I took my laptop in to a shop and although they weren’t able to get the machine working again they were able to recover most of my files – including my PhD. Since then I have made regular physical and online back ups and now the thing I struggle most with is organising all the files in an accessible manner. My EndNote problem is a bit different – I’ve used it since about 2001 and it functions for me in a similar way to you – an extension of me. My problem is that I have found EndNote for Mac to be much less reliable; it is generally slower and doesn’t work as well in long documents, or when you are cutting and pasting between documents. This means that I am seriously looking at replacing it, and there is dedicated Mac referencing software, but I can’t quite bring myself to leave EndNote, so I’m frozen in indecision.


    • Bazilah says:

      I do agree the EndNote for Mac is less reliable; it really make my life miserable when the document is too big. It’s really slow and crashed my document and I have to redo over again.


  3. Jane S says:

    Pat, I’m beginning to believe you have ESP! Am fretting about these questions right now.
    Paranoia reigns here, too – 24/7.
    Back-up, back-up, back-up … Everyone tells you this. Theory’s OK ~ practice harder.
    After aeons of utilising disks, then RW CDs, came reliance on USB memory stick. Did that ~ till the fateful day it went ‘Phut’. It did give a slight indication all was not well, and I emailed myself with a couple of irreplaceable Word docs / file attachments ~ *just in time*. Phew!
    Current (hopefully fail-safe) back-up is Dropbox cloud-storage. And back-up every so often to 2 memory sticks. (When I remember.)
    And printing-out material which has reached its ‘final, final 1st draft’ stage.
    Have never managed to use Endnote.
    We didn’t have these options in the days of typewriters, did we? But – *but* …
    So-o wearingly time-consuming, backing-up. Versions change every day when you’re writing a thesis.
    Perhaps next purchase ought to be an external hard drive.
    As for my own library, no room for it in the house, let alone my head. Books are bustin’ out all over.
    Agree, tho’, re. university libraries. The higher we go in research, the lower the budgets appear to be. At PhD level, vol. prices are huge, but I still tend to buy. (Inc. 2nd hand, usually, courtesy of Abe, Amazon *et al*, invariably from the States.) By the time I’ve gone into the uni. library to request a title (they won’t do this by email or over the phone) and they’ve recalled it and I’ve trotted in again to collect it, only to find someone’s reserved it in turn and I have a limited time etc., I might as well purchase it and save the cost of fuel / trains or whatever. And then there are those precious single-copy vols listed in the catalogue ~~ until you find they’re missing. Someone’s ‘parked’ what you want on an inappropriate shelf for their own personal use, never to be seen again …
    Loaning books to people? Learned the hard way: never a borrower or a lender be.


  4. oh what if the you are just about to write the last few lines and some thing happens to your computer irrespective of all the backups that are in place? MY MY !!
    I think I being a weak person cannot absorb such a shock! It would simply kill me there and than.
    Phew I am profusely sweating after reading your blog…;(


  5. ailsahaxell says:

    not loosing the book is why I have my most loved academic texts in both hardcopy and ebook. The ebook means anywhere anytime attached in my endnote library, plus the word search = so much more effective than an index.


  6. maelorin says:

    I am going through a consolidation process; all manner of half-versions of each of the three versions of my PhD thesis to date … So much stuff!


  7. silgtavares says:

    The transcriptions of the 88 interviews I did over 18 months of research. The interviews varied from 20 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes and the most boring part of my research was to transcribe them! OMG I cannot imagine losing them… My PhD would be gone! I have them copied in 4 different places with my thesis working chapters and my endnote library. I update those backup files around once a week and if I have been working mostly in one file (let’s say a chapter) that week I just send it to my gmail account. Phew! It is a marathon just to make sure it is all safe!


  8. Emily nelson says:

    The night of the Japanese tsunami we also were under a tsunami warning where I live in nz. I was planning on waking the kids and taking them to higher ground. It took me over 15 minutes to back up all my thesis and data files onto the one external hard drive. I was petrified that my potential last moments would be spent saving data rather than my children!


  9. Daniel says:

    As for books, well, there is a way to have them available digitally. I am not talking about using DRM limited copies but … well, scanning the books. Which can be very fast if you can be very cruel to the books (cutting off the back and putting the pages into a document scanner, ). This gives you the books as PDF, which you can then OCR, making them searchable, allowing you to highlight and export the highlighted text only, and you can do backups. It would not work if it were not for tablets — reading on a notebook is a pain, but reading on tablets works like a charm for me ( ). Given that you can also attach the PDFs to your reference manager you can have all the books always available (you need enough storage space, but given tablets with 64+GB space that should not be a problem (my private library has about 1000 books and is 17GB in size, my work library about 6700 PDFs (mostly papers, but also hundreds of books) and is 25GB.
    I’ve got multiple backups with a rotating system (four external hard drives, two used for backups, two in a vault at the bank). It’s still possible to lose everything but with this system (and a few odd backups) that nightmare is pretty tame.

    Currently my academic nightmare is that science is going downhill with it’s publish-or-perish and ethics are optional approach that seems to be favored by more and more scientists.


  10. MP says:

    After working on my dissertation one day and saving it to my flash drive, I had to park in an unfamiliar neighborhood. As I walked away from my car, I thought, “If my car gets stolen, both copies of my dissertation are in there.” I was much more worried about that than my car. That’s when I knew I needed to start doing cloud storage.

    I also worry about my handwritten notes as well as my books. I still like to do handwritten revision; my brain just revises better on paper. But even though I try to make a photo copy, I am on edge until I get those revisions into the computer. I also worry about the library books I have at home. I have about 150 books checked out from my university’s library, and at times I think that if my home burned down (or something to that effect), I would never be able to afford the replacement fees on all those books. Ha, ha! As if working on the dissertation weren’t already enough to worry about.


  11. Dale Reardon says:


    I use Crashplan which is a fantastic cloud backup service. Just runs flawlessly in the background and does everything –



  12. Pingback: Weekend Links #6 | quiteirregular

  13. There is another area that is often ignored by academics but I know a number of people have fallen foul of – they store academic material only on work machines or servers, they get into a dispute with the university and find that they immediately loss access to their own data and then have to try and regain access to it.


  14. Sarina says:

    I had all the .wav files of interviews, plus the mp3 files I’d edited, plus photos of participants -all stored on uni server as we were told to do, all organised into file structures, tagged etc. The IT department went through & deleted everything, cause their automated systems consider multimedia personal not uni related. What a nightmare.


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