How to import text files into Microsoft Excel

Text, ASC or CSV files are compressed formats for data and are commonly used because they give smaller file sizes.  If you use the measurement log in Photoshop you will export a Text file.  If you are looking at palaeoclimate and archaeology for example you may wish to download climate data from something like Pangea or NOAA.   Here is how you do it.

“I don’t know this function in Excel, panic!”

“Can’t I just type the data in again?”

“It’s beyond my comfort zone!”


Importing data

In Microsoft Excel open a new sheet or workbook and navigate to the Data-tab (Fig. 1).


Figure 1: Blank Excel spread sheet.  Note the Data tab along the top

Click on the Data tab and on the left you will see an icon listed ‘From text’ click on that and a dialogue box will open (Fig. 2).  Use this to select the text file or any other similar data file.


Figure 2: Opening a text file or any other similar data file.

When you open the selected file a Wizard will open like that in Figure 3.  Use this to makes sure the data imports correctly.  In the case in Figure 3 I have checked ‘Delineated by’ and press OK.  The next window (Fig. 4) allows me to select what I think each row is delineated by.  In this case it is a space.  When I check this the preview shows me that each column will be imported into its own column.  I can now continue with the wizard and the data will be imported.

If the data won’t delineate nicely in the preview use the ‘Back’ key to navigate to the first window on the Wizard try using the ‘fixed width’ check box.  You can drag the column breaks into place using this method.


Figure 3: Data import wizard in Excel.


Figure 4: In the previous box (Fig. 3) I checked ‘delineated by’ and now it is asking me by what.  I have checked space and the preview shows me that each column will end up in its own column when imported.

Academic reading: help! Here’s some guidance that might help

So the new term is upon us and fresh faced undergraduate fill the campus.  There are some perennial questions that always come to the surface around now and many of them are about reading.  So for the benefit of my new Geography students here are a few observations which you may or may not find useful.

Listen to the introductions for University Challenge and the student will say ‘reading Biology, or reading Geology’ or at least they used to.  The point here is the word ‘reading’ – you read for your degree.  The lectures define the syllabus and provide core knowledge but above all else they scope the subject and its frontiers.  Frontiers and terrain that you are expected to explore through your own reading.

In a generation brought up with the internet and with everything online at your fingertips this is not as straight forward as it used to be 30 years ago when reading meant spending hours sitting in the basement of the library.  There is now a diversity of output (Fig. 1) where once there were simply printed journals and textbooks.  Since most academic material is now delivered online there is a blurring of boundaries.


Figure 1: Information sources.

A common question is: ‘material from a website is OK right, it’s no different from an e-journal or e-book is it?’  The answer off course is no, they are worlds apart!  An e-journal has been peer reviewed, a website has not.  Anyone can post what they like, as witnessed by this site, on a website accurate or not.  Figure 2 is my take on the history of journals which can help resolve some of these questions; it is also useful to understand the process of academic publishing and the role of peer review (Fig. 3).  It is peer review that provides the safeguard against ‘fake research’ although it is not without its dark-side.


Figure 2: My take on the history of the academic journal.


Figure 3: Summary of the academic peer review publishing system.  It is a bit like having your work marked by your peers; it is often a painful process!

We can look at the reading process in three steps: how do you surface material >> check its quality and reference management >> and actively read it?

Finding stuff to read

When I was a student back when the dinosaurs roamed free we were always, by the better lectures at least, given a print sheet of references to take to the library and read.  These days finding material is much easier, you can just go on line.  A lecturer may direct you to specific books and papers, but probably less so than in the past because it is so easy these days to find material.  There are specialist search engines and databases such as the Web of Knowledge and there are details and instructions on the Library web pages.  However in truth the best option is to do a simple Google Scholar search.  To be clear this is not your normal Google search engine, you will need to find it in the Google apps or search for it.  Once you have found it save it your favourites, it is in truth all you need in my opinion at least.  It surfaces academic papers and books and does so like a dream!  I use nothing else in my research unless I am on the quest for something very specialised.  Figure 4 show a typical search.  For finding the key papers fast and easily there is nothing like it and for Physical Geography it covers all the key subjects well.


Figure 4: Typical Google Scholar search.  Key words go in at the top, you can set the date range on the right and the availability of the work is listed on the right.  The double quotation marks brings out a popup with the citation.  

Quality and Reference Management

Having found your material the next thing is to think about quality.  Some good questions to ask of a source before you spend time reading are:

  • Where is the item published? Is it a textbook or research article?  Now textbooks are good in the fact that you get lots of information in one place and for developing core knowledge there is nothing better, but they are always out of date!  For some subjects this does not matter the information is timeless, but science is never static and if you want the latest information you need to seek out the original research (Fig. 5; Table 1).


Figure 5: Different lead times from research to publication.


Type of Publications Comment Quality
Journal paper/article

[Paper and e-journals]

Provided it is a reputable journal then peer reviewed is normally rigorous.  Check this Good editor and/or editorial board helps. Best source every time.  Some disciplines (e.g., archaeology) don’t always place their best stuff in journal papers – restrictions of length etc. *****
Conference volume or edited issue Peer review can be very variable and often more flex especially for the editors mates.  Editor dependent. Work is often under developed – saving the best for a paper.  More common in archaeology/anthropology. ***
Research monograph Common in archaeology were there is a lot of data to convey.  Quality depends on author and editor.  Peer review protocol more shadowy. ***
Readers and popular science The book once completed is usually reviewed by publisher – light touch.  It is also reviewed by community in published book reviews. Depends on the author, but bear in mind they are advancing a ‘thesis’ (idea) and may not be as objective as you might wish.

[Be very careful of ‘self-published’ works]

Textbooks The book once completed is usually reviewed by publisher – light touch.  It is also reviewed by community in published book reviews. Depends on the author, but bear in mind they are selecting information, not always representing the whole field.  Textbooks are always a few years out of date. **

Table 1: My personal assessment of quality of different types of source.  Not everyone will agree with this and it varies with discipline.  

  • When was the item published?  Now this is a tricky question.  In theory the more recent a paper the more up to date it should be; so should you only look at stuff published in the last few years?  The answer is no, there are many classic papers which can be anything from ten to hundred years old.  Yes its is often harder to get those papers digitally but that is not a reason for ignoring them!  The classics are often the best.  You just need to be aware of how how ideas may have changed.  Look at a couple of recent articles on a subject and if they all link back to one older piece then it is often worth giving it a read.
  • Is the journal peered reviewed?  On the journal’s home page there should be information about this, check that it has been, if it hasn’t treat with caution.  Books can be a bit of grey area, most textbooks undergo some review before publication but it in truth the rigour varies.  Be particularly careful of anything that is clearly self-published, by contrast large publishing houses have a reputation to maintain and are careful.  The impact factor of a journal is a crude measure how much research in the journal is cited.  The higher the value, and most journals have impact factors of <5, the more the research in the journal is being read and cited by others.  A journal without an impact factor is more suspect unless starting out and backed by a big publishing house.
  • Who is the editor or who is on the editorial board?  Are the editors and members of the editorial board established figures in the discipline, can you trace them back to solid academic institutions and profiles?
  • If the work has been published for a while you might like to check the articles metrics.  There are various metrics that you may look at but the simplest is the number of citation.  How many times has an academic who is not an author of the piece referenced the work in another paper?  The more citation the more impact the article has had; remember that if it was published just a few months ago the citations will always be low since it take time for people to read and cite a work.  The Altmetrics is another measure.  This is a measure of the media and public interest in article when published.  It is based on things like the number of downloads, press coverage, tweets and the like.  The only caution I would say is that bad or outrageous science can sometimes have high Altmetrics for the wrong reasons.
  • Where was it published?  There are a lot of new journals popping up at the moment with a move to Open Access publishing and in truth a lot of them are very poor.  A quick check on the age of a journal can really help here; has it being going for decades or not?
  • Who funded the work?  As you read a piece it is always a good idea to turn to the acknowledgements or declarations at the end of a paper to see in the authors declare any conflicts of interest and/or funding details.  A paper funded by the nuclear industry for example may not be that independent when critiquing that industry!  This is very true of papers in about drugs and medical devises.  You may also want to look carefully at the sample size and experimental design.  Just because a paper got published doesn’t mean that it is always free from flaws!

So you have found something to read, you have save the PDF or printed the paper what comes next.  Well managing your papers (Fig. 6) is a good housekeeping step and there are various bibliographic programmes some free, some not that can help you manage this stack of papers whether they be printed or saved to your hard drive.  There are various tables which compare different reference managers, here is an example.  If you are a Bournemouth student then Endnote is provided free, but what happens when you leave?  My advice is to go for something free at least to start with.  I use and personally recommend Mendeley, but you might find something better.  It creates reference lists, but for me the key is it stores PDFs and you can access your library via the web from anywhere.  If I am honest I am terrible at keeping it up to date and Figure 6 is a shot from my office!


Figure 6: Having a hard time finding the right paper?  May be time to go digital and use a reference manager?

Critical Reading

We are now at the final and most important task.  So you have found stuff, downloaded it, stored it nicely . . . . so you feel better, yes?  This is sometimes referred to as psychological value of unused information.  People buy self-help books, never read them, but feel better anyway!  It doesn’t quite work like that in this case, you need to read.

In truth most academic papers will put you to sleep if you try to read them end to end even if they are well written, so don’t try!  Academic reading is about the assimilation of information and its translation (i.e. engage with it) that information into something useful to you.


Figure 8: As the Borg would say assimilation is everything!

You need to be a critical reader and like all academic skills it has to be learnt.  Here are few observations that might help:

  • Reading critically does not, necessarily, mean being critical of what you read. It is not about identifying faults and flaws.
  • Critical reading means engaging in what you read by asking ‘what is the author trying to say?’ or ‘what is the main argument being presented?’
  • Critical reading involves presenting a reasoned argument that evaluates and analyses what you have read thereby advancing your understanding, not dismissing and therefore closing off learning.
  • Having a reading agenda helps (Table 2), what do you need?
    • General knowledge on a broad subject area
    • Improved understanding of a specific concept
    • Examples and illustrations of key points [e.g., Case Studies]
    • Information on a debate or controversy [e.g., Pros and cons]
    • Data on best practice?


Requirement Best sources?
1 General knowledge on a broad subject area Textbooks are good for this in combination with a reader.  Select the relevant chapter and skim read focusing on key sections/paragraphs.
2 Improved understanding of a specific concept Textbooks are best for this.  Select the relevant chapter or use the index and focus on key the section(s) or paragraphs.
3 Examples and illustrations of key points [e.g., Case Studies] Journal articles are best for this.  Examples in textbooks are often ‘tired’.  Look for new.
4 Information on a debate or controversy [e.g., Pros and cons] Journal articles from different sides of a debate; focus on the introduction and discussion sections which paraphrase a debate.  A good review article may really help.
5 Data on best practice Journal articles are best for this since they are most current.

Table 2: Different types of sources.

Reading should be a process of discovery, with one question leading to another.  Above all else reading should be an active process.  Producing a precise or summary of a paper and trying to fit it on no more than one piece of A4 is a good habit to form.  I suggest you read the post on writing a precise here.  I have one other tip which you might find useful.  It can be useful to keep your notes on journal papers separate from your lecture notes, although cross-referenced. Why?  Well it allows to see linkages beyond the structure of your lectures and can aid discovery and allows you to use of one bit of reading in multiple places.  For example, one case study using multiple techniques might be useful as an example in four or five places in your lecture notes.  Figure 9 gives one possible mode of working and is ideal for use with an electronic notebook like Evernote.


Figure 9: Using paper summaries in a flexible way like a stack of cards, ideal for use with something like Evernote or OneNote.

Finally remember it is always a great idea to reflect and think about what you read!


Rhetoric as a guide in shaping/reviewing a piece of communication

Rhetoric hails from Ancient Greece and along with grammar and logic is one of the three arts of discourse.  At its simplest it is the art of effective (or persuasive) speaking and/or writing and a key to effective communication.  The word is now often used however in a derogatory way ‘language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content’.  While pretentious speaking and/or writing is not for the modern scientist, at least in my view, the basic elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric of logos, pathos, and ethos has some value.  A speaker or writer does well to consider these three elements which for the rhetorical triangle (Fig. 1).

rehetroci and writing

Figure 1: The rhetorical triangle.

We can start at any point, so let us consider first the writer/speaker’s perspective (ethos).  Fundamentally your audience/readers want to know what your motives are in communicating to them.  Are you providing information? Trying to educate or call them to action?  Is your aim simply to entertain or to change hearts and minds?  The identity of the speaker/writer is also important to the audience and impacts on the argument.  Who are you and what are your credentials for speaking out on this subject, where is your mandate to speak and where does your authority come from?  At its simplest this may be about setting out your experiences/qualifications, your roll in any debate and/or demonstrating that you have knowledge of a subject.  The literature review in a dissertation or academic paper serves this function; to show your mastery of a subject.

The context or logos of your communication is also important and overlaps with the example above.  The literature review is a way of demonstrating context, but it is more than this.  A good introduction will establish a rationale for the communication, why are you speaking on this subject now for example.  What events have preceded and led to the communication?  Why it is important now and why is being delivered in this way?  The logic of an argument and the evidence gathered to support or debate that argument all have a context.  There is an emphasis on rationale, logic and reason. Your audience/reader needs to be able to follow what you are saying for it to be believable and understand its context and implications.  The discussion and conclusions of a piece or prose or a speech are critical here.  That is, the extension from the specific case in question to the general case with wider implications and/or recommendations for action.

The final element is the audience itself.  Knowing who you’re speaking to or writing for helps you pitch it well.  For example, should you use lay-terms or will you be accused of dumbing down if the content is intended for an expert professional? What are the audience’s expectations of your communication?  Has it been invited or is it unsolicited?  Are they likely to be hostile?  How will they use the information you provide and what are they hoping (and you would like them) to take away?  Ultimately why do they care about the question argument in hand and how do you use the emotions of the audience (the pathos) to get them to engage and perhaps act on your message?  What emotion do you want to evoke: Fear, trust, loyalty…?  Do you have shared values or beliefs you want to draw on?  How do you connect with the audience/readers to gain their support, interest and/or action?

These all questions to ask and consider in framing any form of communications be it written, oral or graphic.  So how do you use the triangle?  Well it is simply something to bear in mind when writing an email (give me a job!), reporting a piece of research or giving a talk.  Best applied in the planning stages; you could for example sketch out a triangle and note some points or observations around each corner.  When you are finished and are reviewing your communication consider each corner in turn: have you set out the context, have you provided enough information about you as the communicator, and have you met the audience expectations?  When all said and done it is a tool and nothing more, but despite the negativity associated these days with the word rhetoric it is a useful and valuable tool.

Engaged: to be or not to be? Or why bother with lecture notes?

There is nothing more dispiriting as a tutor than to look out at a sea of blank or vacant faces.  These days many hide behind expensive laptops, doing who knows what!  Attendance can be variable especially after the first flush of a new term is over.  As staff we are required to post our lectures and now under pressure to record our lectures.  The idea behind this by the way is that a student can return to key sections in the future.  In truth at least from my perspective if you are going to do this why run formal lectures at all?  Units might be better packaged as YouTube videos?  From a tutor’s perspective the equation is often simple, the more you give the less your students need to engage and attend.  May be this is not very fair but it is borne out by my own experience.

Whether it is with rose tinted glasses or not I believe I used to have stronger student engagement when I set out lecturing in the 1990s.  In those days (as in mine the decade before) a student needed to write notes or leave with nothing.  Attendance was much better and I believe so was student performance.  The introduction of a succession of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs; currently Bightspace at BU) killed this to some extent.  Slides had to be posted.  Despite what others argue I believe strongly that the VLE weakens student engagement.  In the old days you had to write notes, you had to engage while these days you simply have to download the slides.  Or so the theory goes, until you encounter someone like me who’s slides are simply a pile of graphs, diagrams and pictures.  The narrative that goes with them is the bit you get by attending and engaging with the lecture.

I am a realist about such matters knowing that the competition between a cold lecture hall and a warm student bed is tough especially on a cold Monday morning in winter!  So from a student’s perspective let’s explore the question of engagement with lectures.  Why does it matter and what does engagement actually mean?

Well you go to university – rather than college or the like – to learn from those that are creating new knowledge.  To learn from the people active in your discipline area and driving research forward.  That is the theory at least and how it should be, especially if you are paying £9,000 plus for the privilege each year.  Your tutors should have pedigree either in professional practice or as academic researchers and if they don’t you have in my view the right to question this.  The difference between a textbook and real researcher is that you gain from their experience, from their perspective and ultimately from their knowledge and research which unlike a textbook is evolving all the time.  You gain this through lectures and in the case of geography/geology through fieldwork.  A lecture should be different every time, should refer to new literature and emerging debates.  It is by its nature unpredictable, if it is predicable then it has lost its relevance and has become simply an audio/video file and something that is static.  I am not here to teach, but to share my knowledge and to join with you in debating the latest ideas and to develop them together.  So the very best lectures should be unpredictable in a good way that is and that is why you need to attend and accept that they will divert from script and posted material from time to time and so they should.  If you don’t attend then you a missing out one of the key facets of a university education at least in my view, that and learning to think critically and communicate those thoughts.

So let us take as read that attendance is essential if at all possible, why else would we bother to schedule classes otherwise?  So the next question and one many students ask is should you listen or write notes?  Well if your lecturer is talking and talking fast as they do then verbatim notes are a waste of time, but capturing key points is not.  I am not talking about listening to them read PowerPoint slides; heaven help you if that is the experience you get.  In fact you have my sympathies and I would encourage you to push back if that is the case.

Some students seek to record lectures as a way around the problem – they talk to fast!  I am guilty of talking to fast and I am personally not opposed to having my lectures recorded, but unless there is a specific reason for doing so my advice is not to.  Why sit through the same talk twice?  Engage the first time.  If you don’t understand something when you review your notes then find a time to ask a question and seek help even if the cohort is large and the tutor is scary!  This is also part of the learning process.

Now our learning styles are all different so we are told frequently, and they may be, but there is a key step here that is true to most elements of life (and to the lecture) and we use every day in conversation – listen, think/reflect and respond through action.  It is the process of active listening and is evidenced by action.  In conversation it is the act of responding to what is said rather than just talking.  It is a skill that often needs to be learnt even by those who talk and gossip continuously. Whatever you’re learning style find a way to listen, distil/reflect and to record those thoughts.

Writing can be a challenge for some but writing/noting for oneself is a key way of engaging.  You just need to work out here what works best for you through some experimentation.  May be pictures, abbreviations, bullet-points or thought maps, there are loads of things to try.

Call me traditional but I would say that it is always a good idea (and an excellent habit to form) to write notes fast and legibly by hand for your own use.  They don’t have to look pretty!  There is certainly no point making them pretty after the event as long as you can read them, to do so is to waste time. The note writing skill is like any other and needs to be practiced and mastering it will serve you well in professional practice and later life.  Lectures allow you to practice this skill.  Writing fast is a useful skill for exams now and in the future for meetings, taking statements, receiving instructions and jotting down ideas and decisions.  Annotating printed PowerPoint slides is a common solution, but is not as good as listening and noting in your own words what is actually being said.  A slide is the lecturer’s summary not yours and yours is the one that counts, the one you will digest, understand and own.

Whatever you do find a way to engage in lectures and value them for what they are; a key part of your university educations and always remember there are good lectures and there bad lectures just as there are good days and bad days.

Academic writing I: Lots of opinions no right answers or dealing with uncertainty

In a previous post I wrote about the concept of ‘rhetoric’ and the interplay between the audience, the writer and the context (Fig. 1).  This helps explain why there is no right or wrong way to set about a piece of academic writing or coursework.  Ultimately the audience is always right and is often fickle.


Figure 1: The use of rhetoric.

There are lots of reasons for this, different disciplines have their own way of doing things and everyone has their own personal ‘writing experience’.  Essentially they ‘do unto you, what was done (rightly or wrongly) unto them’.  Different bosses like things done in different ways and in truth most of your tutors at University will have different opinions.  These will depend on their academic history, how much they publish and where they publish.  As the phrase says ‘what is breed in the bone will out in the flesh’.

In the case of your boss you may be able to slowly challenge them and educate them into your (hopefully better) way of writing, but in most cases you will need to confirm to your audiences expectations.  Just because all your tutors are from the same faculty don’t assume that they all write in the same way or expect the same output.  Your audience will always have different perspectives, experiences and values.  Your tutors are all different and hurray for individuality!  In most cases therefore you are appealing to the likes and dislikes of your audience and to ‘like-minded’ readers, but it is always good to remember that if you always conform you cannot change minds and opinions.  Ultimately it is about the way you go about this.

The lack of certainty about what is required can be a nightmare for students.   You are not going to solve this however much you wish or demand conformity, so best to embrace it and work within the constraints that you do have.

balls and control2

Figure 2: Your tutors are individuals each with their own perspective of how things should be done.

Figure 2 tries to crystallise this.  The known constraints are the assignment brief, the style guide to which you are working and your aim is to land the assignment in the ball-park remembering that each ball (i.e. tutor) is different.  They are kept broadly (and I mean broadly) by external examiners and professional benchmarks.  A good illustration of this is the use of the first person.  When I was a student and a young lecture the first person was a big no, for some academics it remains a no, but in the last 30 years this has changed and many journals now encourage the use of the first person.  In my own writing practice I embrace it.  There are people in my own faculty, however, who still think it is a huge sin.  This is an example of the uncertainty around how to land an assignment.  Well in this example the simple answer is to ask the tutor for whom you are writing and/or check out what the style is in the journals specific to their subject area or in which they write.  A bit of simple audience research can really help.  If a tutor tells you to never use the first person, take it with a ‘pinch of salt.’

This level of uncertainty is not just specific to Universities; you will find a similar set of uncertainties in professional practice to (Fig. 3).  And academics work with uncertainty in the form of the opinions of peer reviewers and their audiences all the time (Fig. 4).

balls and controls3

Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.

balls and controls2

Figure 4: Landing an academic paper (publication) in the right space. 

So the first thing to remember is to know your audience and write for them within the formal and informal constraints that are set.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of just writing any old rubbish to conform and flatter your audience.  Some messages are easier however:

  • ‘I found the same as them!’
  • ‘We are doing a wonderful job.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your case.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your site model.’

It is much harder to challenge:

  • ‘We have to change the way we are doing things, and now!’
  • ‘The evidence doesn’t support the Boss’s view.’
  • ‘Your prime suspect couldn’t have done it!’

Conforming to your audiences views does not mean ‘rolling over’ but you need to tread carefully and build a strong evidence case when challenging the status quo.  The so called ‘tempered radical’ usually wins the day, if slowly.  The second lesson is to always evidence your claim and build a reasoned argument which considers alternatives and provides context.  You can conform to audience expectations while also punching them in the face!  Gently!

Uncertainty can extend to definitions of different types of written work.  Take the humble essay for example much loved as an assessment.  Personally I think that the use of sub-heading is appropriate to help provide some structure, but others argue that there should be none at all.  The dictionary is of little help:

‘Short piece of writing on a particular subject’

‘A short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.’

Generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper or an article.  Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay has a more personal element.   Nowhere is the any guidance about the use of subheadings!  Now an essay is not a report.  A report is a more factual and any argument is confined to the discussion or conclusion once the data/evidence has been presented.  Here are some definitions but they are mine, not necessarily everyone’s!

  • Essay – a continuous piece of prose which explores/evaluates one or more concepts and/or develops an argument (a thesis or claim). The word thesis is not to be confused with a PhD or Master Thesis, but refers to a central claim or idea which is then argued.  Generally an essay may have broad headings to act as a guide and has a clear logical development of ideas normally around a single thesis.  It can contain general illustrations but is usually free from data.
  • Report – a factual description of a set of results (field and/or laboratory) followed by analysis and discussion of those results. Usually sub-divided into sub-headings following AIMRaD structure (Fig. 5): aims, introduction, methods, results and discussion. It normally contains data, graphs and analysis
  • Dissertation/thesis – an extended piece of work based on original research and/or a systematic review of secondary sources/literature.
  • Literature review – a structured summary and synthesis of previous work on a subject. Note this may be a component of a report, essay or dissertation.
  • Paper – in academic circles this normally refers to a peer reviewed and published paper/article. In some countries especially the USA it is synonymous with ‘essay/report’.

Again the key to dealing with uncertainty is to find out what your audience expects and wants and to give it to them.

AAFS Study Skills_Session#14_15_16

Figure 5: The classic AIMRad structure.

One of the hardest things to do is to write, especially when you are working with uncertainty, but writing is part of the creative scientific process.  It provides a way of working through your arguments and making your case.  Unfortunately there is only one solution and that is to practice and to never forget your audience.

How to take measurements from a photograph

Digital photographs have become a key part of the scientist’s observational toolkit.  In a forensic context photographs provide a vital source of evidence.  Taking accurate digital measurements is an important skill.

“I have never used Photoshop, how can I get a good grade?”

“Can’t I just measure from the photo?””

“It’s beyond my comfort zone!”

“What happens if I did not include a scale bar?”

The study skills unit is about learning new skills about stretching your horizons and above all else investing time in your own professional development.  This is one of those skills or pieces of ‘know-how’ that is worth investing.

So invest the time to learn something new; it won’t be easy but it will make you a better professional given practice.  As with any task there are many different ways of approaching a task and one is not necessarily better than another.

Simple measurements

Open Photoshop and navigate to the photograph that you want to take measurements from.  The photograph must not be oblique; that is the line from the camera lens to the object (and surface its rests on) must be orthogonal (at right angles).  Compare Figures 1 and 2 one is good for taking measurements and one is not.  We now need to make sure the Rulers are visible in the window; go to View >> Rulers to turn them on.  By right clicking on the ruler you can change the units of measurements (Fig. 3).  Initially we want pixels so select this.  Now we need the measurement tool which looks like a cartoon version of a ruler and is hidden with a range of other tools including the eye dropper on the left hand pallet.  Any of the buttons on the left hand pallet that has a small triangle in the bottom corner has more than one tool hidden there; click and hold on the upper most icon and a pull out menu will appear allowing you to find the tool you want (Fig. 1).  If you use it a lot you can custom the tool bars.

fig1Figure 1: Image ready for measurement.  Note that it is orthogonal to the camera.  The scale bar is square in the picture.  Compare to Figure 2.

fig2Figure 2:  The same object in Figure 2 but from an oblique angle.  In this case any measurements made would not be true distances. 

Using the measurement tool measure accurately the distance on your scale bar between two point.  For example the distance between 0 and 15 cm which is the length of the scale bar (Fig. 4).  The number of pixels this corresponds to will appear in the top tool bar, circled in red in Figure 4.  Remember we set the units to pixels by right clicking on the rulers (Fig. 3).


Figure 3: Changing the units by right clicking on the ruler.


Figure 4: Measuring the length of the scale bar in pixels

In my case the distance is 2596 pixels, so if we divide this by 15 we get the number of pixels per centimetres which is 173.06.  Write this number down.  Now we can give this information to Photoshop so that it is correctly calibrated for this photograph.  Go to Image >> Image Size (Fig. 5).  Now adjust the drop down so that it shows pixels/centimetre and write in the figure of 173.06.  Uncheck the resample and constrain check boxes (Fig. 5) and press OK.


Figure 5: Calibrating the image for measurements.

The image is now correctly calibrated.  If we wanted to permanently set the image to 1:1 then we could leave the ‘Resample Image’ checked and it would re-sample and adjust the image permanently.  If you wanted to print the image at 1:1 then this is what you would do.  However in our case we don’t want to unnecessarily and perhaps detrimentally adjust the image resolution so leave it unchecked.  If you now go back to the rulers and right click you can change the units back to something useful like millimetres or centimetres. So next we much check the accuracy of our calibration.  There are two ways of doing this.  Firstly if you measure between 0 and 15 cm on the scale bar the figure of 15 cm should appear in the measurement value (Fig. 6).  Secondly, you can drag two guides to one corner of your scale bar and then drag the origin of the ruler to that point.  You do this by left clicking on the origin (point where the vertical and horizontal rulers meet).  The measurements on the rulers should now correspond to those of the scale bar.  You can now proceed to take as many measurements as you wish (Fig. 6).  If the calibration is not quite right then you need to repeat the steps above.  You have calibrated your first photograph for measurement; congratulations!

fig6Figure 6: Calibration checks assuming the checks are good you are now ready to measure your artefact.

You can also measure angles.  Use the measuring tool in the normal way but then depress and hold down the Alt key when you have drawn the line this will allow you drag out a new line.  The angle between the two lines is recorded in the toolbar (Fig. 7).

fig7Figure 7 Measuring angles in Photoshop.  Drag a measurement line 1-2 then depress and hold the Alt key down to drag out a third line 3.  The angle between the two lines is shown in the main toolbar.

Multiple measurements

If you have multiple measurements to make on a single image there is a facility in Photoshop to create a measurement log and to export this as a Text-file.  This can be very useful.  Go to Windows >> Measurement Log a horizontal window will appear along the bottom of the screen.  You now need to set the measurement scale (Fig. 8).  Essentially you are being asked to add in the same information as before; how many pixels equals your unit of measurement (Fig. 9).  You can now continue to makes a series of measurements; after each one you need to press ‘record measurement’.  Once you have completed your measurements you can export the log by clicking on the ruler icon with an arrow embedded.  This is located in the top right hand side of the measurement log window (Fig. 10).  It is important to realise that the system only records the measurements so you need to keep a written note or sketch in your notebook of what each measurement corresponds to.  Files are exported as Text-files.

fig8Figure 8: Measurement log.  Click the stack of lines on the right hand edge of the upper part of the window to bring up the ‘Set Measurement Scale’.  Select Custom to bring up the dialogue box in Figure 9.

fig9Figure 9: Setting the measurement scale.  You need to type in the number of pixels that corresponds to a cm.

fig10Figure 10: Measurement log in action.  You will find the export function circled.

Correcting oblique images

If you did not take your images orthogonal to the plane then it is not ideal.  Sometimes this can be difficult to achieve such as in the case of buildings, where they will always appear foreshortened unless you can get far enough away from them.  There are several ways of correcting for this within Photoshop and some excellent perspective tools.  The way I am going to show here is just one solution that I find useful provided that there is a square object in the frame.

My preferred solution is to use the Perspective Crop tool.  You will find this hiding below the crop button; it looks like a mesh (Fig.11).  Use this tool to draw out a grid approximately near the square object (Fig. 12).  Now take the corners and place them on the corners of the scale bar.  Having done this place the cursor on the side walls of the grid and pull them out to extend it in all dimensions over the key parts of the image (Fig. 13).  Now clip crop.  The plane is corrected and you can proceed to make measurements as before (Fig. 14).  It is not ideal and there are several opportunities for error so avoid using this if possible.

fig11Figure 11: Deploying the perspective crop tool.

fig12Figure 12: Drag the corners with the cursor so they are on the object of something you know to be square, in this case the scale bar.

fig13Figure 13: Extending the sides of the crop tool beyond the initial square.

fig14Figure 14: The final cropped and corrected image ready for measurements

How to find instructions and tutorials on the web

If in doubt Google it! It is a good motto to have provided you have an internet connection.  Doesn’t have to be Google but the principle holds.   I am often faced with new tasks or worse i knew once but have forgotten.  I keep a notebook of web links and pasted information under a heading of ‘how to’, but I often need to seek further guidance.   Stretching your skill-set is a way of investing in yourself.  I do it all the time, so should you!

So let’s say you have do something in Adobe Photoshop which is unfamiliar or worse you did a few months ago and have forgotten!  It could be true of any software and many other skills.  Using a ‘how to . . .’ search in Google will surface most answers.  You simply need to select the best ones and compare a few posts.  The first answer you read is not always the best.  Here is some guidance on using Google, or any other search engine to its best.

Boolean Searches

Boolean searches allow you to combine words and phrases using the words AND, OR, NOT and NEAR (otherwise known as Boolean operators) to limit, widen, or define your search.  George Boole was an English mathematician in the 19th century who developed “Boolean Logic” in order to combine certain concepts and exclude certain concepts when searching databases. Most search engines use Boolean Logic.  Using Boolean Search terms you have two choices: you can use the standard Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT, or NEAR), or you can use their mathematical equivalents.

  • The Boolean search operator AND is equal to the “+” symbol.
  • The Boolean search operator NOT is equal to the “-” symbol.
  • The Boolean search operator OR is the default setting of any search engine; meaning, all search engines will return all the words you type in, automatically.
  • The Boolean search operator NEAR is equal to putting a search query in quotes (i.e., “blood splatter analysis”). You’re essentially telling the search engine that you want all of these words, in this specific order or this specific phrase.

In summary, therefore, using AND narrows a search by combining terms; it will retrieve documents that use both the search terms you specify.  Using OR broadens a search to include results that contain either of the words you type in.  And finally using NOT will narrow a search by excluding certain search terms.


So you what to create a plate of photographs to go in your coursework.  You have read the guidance and attended the lectures but you are still struggling?  Then ask Google.  If you don’t quite get what you are looking for the first time, re-phrase the question and also think laterally – ‘this is not quite right but I could use this technique and may be that one . . . to solve my problem’.

Once you have found something that is useful and quite informative it is a good idea to keep hold of it for future reference.  Now copying the URL to a notebook, especially an electronic one is a good idea.  Don’t just rely on bookmarks because they are browser and computer specific.  I also paraphrase some of the information to make my own crib-sheet especially if its something I am likely to use a lot.

 “There is so much information out there on the web!”

“Use it discerningly!”

“Also remember in software there is often more than one way of doing the same thing; one way is not necessarily any better than another so don’t stress.”

Making an argument

In a subject like geology or physical geography  there is no absolute answer, you can’t simply look up the solution in the back of the book.  You have to find and balance the evidence and make an argument from it.  Just as a barrister makes an argument in a court room geographers have to do the same.  They need to evaluate the evidence, marshal their ideas and present them coherently so that they win the day.  That is what a scientist does when writing an academic paper.  They  collect some data or conduct an experiment,  propose an explanation or hypothesis on the back of this and the marshal their own and others’ evidence (from the literature) to make the case.  Science can be quite gladiatorial with one scientist proposing an idea that another may oppose and attack.  This critical debate lies at the heart of our discipline and helps us winnow good ideas from bad.  In other areas debate is also essential.  For example if you are advising a decision-maker you need to articulate the evidence fairly and appropriately separating areas of fact from interpretation.  In doing so you need to make a balanced argument that is fair to all the evidence and stakeholders.  A geographer brings their unique spatial-analytical skills to bear in this way and makes an argument with words, diagrams and maps.  Whether expressed orally or in writing learning to make an argument is a critical skill and has to be learnt the hard way through practice. 

Words are how people think. When you misuse words, you diminish your ability to think clearly and truthfully.

When you use words loosely, without care and consideration, you erode trust in yourself and in what you’re saying. When you squander words, you diminish your power.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.
Margaret Heffernan

Geographers make critical arguments using a range of different types of spatial data.  In the real-world this may be to influence a decision- or policy-maker, justify a position taken or a proposed course of action in the face of a problem.  Ensuring that your interpretation is valid and prevails is a vital skill for all geographers to learn.  It is important to note that there are often no absolute answers, no one perfect position or solution, simply a well-argued and convincing solution.

The Physical Geography Coursework 2018/19 is designed to make you think about geographical data and to then advance an argument using that data and concisely.

So what is an argument?

An argument is a clearly expressed, balanced, point of view supported by evidence.  Essentially it consists of a ‘claim’ that is evidenced with due consideration of possible ‘counter-claims’ or alternative interpretations and points of view.

Most geographical ideas are debated by someone, somewhere, at some time. Even when the material you read, hear or watch is presented as ‘fact’ it is in truth more likely to be one person’s interpretation of that information.  In the context of your course work it provides: (1) proof that you understand the material; and (2) demonstrates your ability to use or apply that material or understanding.  The latter point is important and can be done in several ways: you can critique the information, apply it to something else, or explain it well.  It helps however to have a particular point or position on the material; this constitutes a ‘claim’.

Clarity and structure is the key to success in writing.  The human form is supported by a skeleton (its structure), remove that skeleton and we are in the words of Spock ‘just bags of water’.  The structure you adopt depends on the aim of the piece, but the following are worth bearing in mind:

  • Your argument needs to be well-structured. You should start with a strong opening statement, an introduction if you like, in which the aim and ‘claim’ are clearly stated with some basic ‘signpost’ statements as to what is to follow.  This should be followed with the three/four key supporting reasons each with evidence or examples.  You should then introduce alternative or ‘counter-claims’ before returning in the conclusion to you ‘claim’.
  • You need to stay focused to the stated aim and to the structure. There is no scope to wander off and you should always keep the point.  No bonus points are given for digressions however erudite they may be.  If you stray you will weaken your argument and end up with a ramble or simply a dump of information.
  • In a coherent argument, all the parts relate to one another clearly flow one after the next in a logical order.
  • In terms of writing, development means stating a point of view (claim) and then supporting it with well-chosen reasons and evidence or examples. A good argument takes the reader by the hand along the path of the argument without allowing the reader to digress or get lost.

Different types of argument will require slightly different approaches or tacks.  It is often good to shake things up and to vary the approach.  However as a guide the following can be used for a 500-1000 word argument:

  • One or two sentences that state the problem, its importance and your perspective or point.
  • Before you start to write list the points in support of your claim.  Now rank them in order of importance.  Ask yourself how you can evidence each one; note this evidence under each one.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first three or four points.  Write about each providing the supporting evidence.
  • Counter-points. Be balanced are there alternative perspectives on the data?  List the counter-points and associated evidence and rank them in order of strength.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first two or three alternatives and present them fairly, then point out in a polite and moderate way how they fail to explain the evidence.
  • Return to you claim or central point restating briefly why it is the most valid perspective in your view.  Explore any implications that follow from your conclusion.

A good argument should contain references that are pertinent to the points being made and to evidence the contribution of other people’s work to your argument.  It should also be illustrated as appropriate.



Useful web-links include:

Details on the BU referencing guide can be found at: