Kieran Healy, “The Plain Person's Guide to Plain Text Social Science.”

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As a beginning graduate student in the social sciences, what sort of software should you use to do your work? More importantly, what principles should guide your choices? This article offers some answers. The short version is: you should use tools that give you more control over the process of data analysis and writing. I recommend you write prose and code using a good text editor; analyze quantitative data with R or Stata; minimize error by storing your work in a simple format (plain text is best), and make a habit of documenting what you’ve done. For data analysis, consider using a format like Rmarkdown and tools like Knitr to make your work more easily reproducible for your future self. Use Pandoc to turn your plain-text documents into PDF, HTML, or Word files to share with others. Keep your projects in a version control system. Back everything up regularly. Make your computer work for you by automating as many of these steps as you can. To help you get started, I briefly discuss a drop-in set of useful defaults to get started with Emacs (a powerful, free text-editor). I share some templates and style files that can get you quickly from plain text to various output formats. And I point to several alternatives, because no humane person should recommend Emacs without presenting some other options as well.

This is an updated and expanded version of ‘Choosing Your Workflow Applications’ (2013). The main difference is an increased emphasis on Rmarkdown, knitr, and pandoc.


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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.

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