Thoughts on Freedom and Overleaf

In 1900, India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem that went like this,

Source of this image:

Where the mind is without fear
And the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world is not broken into fragements
By Narrow Domestic Walls
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habits
Where the mind is led forward by Thee in ever-widening thoughts and action
Into that heaven of freedom,
My Father let my country awake

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was a reverie, it was young Tagore’s epiphany. But in 2016, this is a reality that for many of us academics in the field of knowledge dissemination. For many of us, this is not only a lived experience, it is also a desirable way to work our world. I’d like to argue that today we have an opportunity to live that dream and realise a state of fearless productivity (more essentially, a state of stress-free anxiety-free productivity that sets us free), we have an opportunity to make knowledge available everywhere for everyone free and open, and we have an opportunity to transcend barriers of country, time and indeed, we can afford to break silos of thoughts. Our studies and quest for knowledge are more interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary than ever, and we are indeed living in times where we have the tools and processes that make this happen.

I’d like to highlight here three points that Tagore raised in the epiphanous poem: the state of fearless creativity (flow), and the world of openness and freedom of knowledge. I view Tagore’s evocation as “Mind without fear” as equivalent of the phenomenon of Flow. The Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi has described the concept of flow as a state of creativity when the sense of time seems to disappear, and a state of optimum performance. Flow is a balance of anxiety and skills where a workers enters when his increasing levels of skill and dexterity match the challenges posed to him. When the challenges exceed his skills, he enters a state of anxiety, or experiences stress. When the skill levels exceed the challenges, he enters a state of boredom (see figure)


If we conceptualise fearless activity of our minds as states where we are free to work without anxiety, or stresses, the tools we use to simplify our lives play a critical roles. This is where tools such as simple plain text writing that enables us to free up our thoughts from the trappings of whether the formatting is going to be OK is of great benefit. Thus, tools of writing that are plain text based such as Markdown or LaTeX make it so much easy to operate realistically in a state of optimum creativity of flow as academics.

In the twentieth century, the most significant development that shaped our work processes and free dissemination of knowledge and work processes is the invention of the Internet and then on the top of that, the invention of the World Wide Web. It is important that we realise the freedom and equity that Web allows us. In 2012, the inventor of the WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee tweeted that the Web is for everyone.

A Tweet by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web during the London Olympics

In one fell swoop, the Web makes it so much more easy for us to dive into the richness of human knowledge and imagination. The openness of the web makes it easy for us as academics to port our work into the web and use tools that are simple, that are portable.

But we need the tools to enable us that state. Over the years, I have seen that using tools and processes such as LaTeX and simplicity of Markdown has enabled me to work freely, neatly separating writing content and the appearance. I have used Overleaf as a productivity tool to write and collaborate with my colleagues and students. Over time, I have developed a workflow where I can take in my thoughts, and readings from everywhere. I also use Jupyter notebooks to conduct data analyses, and bring all of them together to simple plain text notes. These notes then get processed with addition of citations and referencing and more research and added to Overleaf. Overleaf has this unique feature of enabling that the same text can be channelled to journal articles, or presentations, and indeed, anyone can collaborate with texts. Here is the workflow that I use now and Overleaf has come to occupy a very interesting in that workflow:

My workflow

In the end, each of us has his or her own workflows and work processes. I just find it useful to keep it simple by taking in ideas and data from everywhere and keep everything in one place using simple texts. This helps to keep my focus and integrate different pieces of information in one place transcending silos and barriers. As Tagore would have said, not breaking the world into narrow fragments. From that one text, I channel it to Overleaf and I add references and citations. I keep the citations in bibtex files. I take them to Overleaf and share with my colleagues, student, and collaborators. Together we build up our knowledge base. As overleaf lives on the web, it works as a channel to disseminate ideas as widely as we want it to be: in the form of essays, journal articles, preprint publications, presentations, blogs. The future is really open.
Let’s make it.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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