Digital Tools for Research

Computers: they’re such a core part of the research process, that it’s hard to believe anyone ever looked things up like this:

card catalogue

Most of us have gotten used to the basics of word processing and database searching, but to really get the most out of your computer for research purposes, it might pay to look at some extra tools that are often available for free (or cheap).

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most useful and widely-used digital tools for researchers, as well as some new discoveries.

Want to write in a non-MS Word environment?

  • Scrivener is a piece of writing software with lots of bells and whistles. Visualise your writing via pinboards, attach files (great for articles you’re citing), and set word targets. Download it for a free trial here, and keep an eye out for a review here on Thesislink in the near future.
  • LaTeX is an open-source system for writing that prioritises content over formatting. It is widely used in the sciences because it handles figures, equations, and tables very well. Plus it has its own dedicated citation management system called BibTeX. You have to learn the ‘language’ (kind of like a programming language) in order to use LaTeX, so it does come with a bit of a learning curve.
  • Evernote is for writing notes, at its simplest level. But it isn’t so much a writing tool as a mechanism for collecting and organising your thoughts, ideas, and materials. Collate text, audio, pictures, online articles, and so on. Make notes on your favourite sources and group those with multimedia materials you’ve collected elsewhere. It’s handy for life as well as research.

Want to manage your references?

  • EndNote is one of the most common citation management tools, and the one best supported at AUT. If you keep recording the sources you use in EndNote, you can easily cite them in your written work, and EndNote will automatically compile a bibliography of all the sources you’ve cited. My favourite function: you can import citation details directly from Google Scholar into EndNote (just make sure you check that the formatting suits your citation style).
  • Mendeley is a newer citation management tool, but building a solid user base. Store your research materials, annotate & highlight PDFs, and build your bibliography. Mendeley works with various writing platforms, including MS Word, and also allows you to share reading lists or articles with other researchers. Best of all, it’s free!
  • Zotero is a free web-based citation manager – hook it into Firefox and away you go. Its big selling point is its ability to save sources from the web with a single click. You can also sync across devices easily. Plus Zotero will automatically index the full-text of your sources, making keyword searching quite powerful.
  • Not sure which citation tool is right for you? Check out this handy comparison table. Just bear in mind, if you’re at AUT and you want access to software training & support, EndNote is the way to go.

Want to communicate with collaborators?

  • Slack is an online messaging platform allowing you to communicate privately with members of a group. Create channels, send direct messages, and share documents from desktop or mobile. Very handy for collaborative research if you’re not in the same space as the rest of your team.
  • Basecamp is a similar idea, though less message-based than Slack. Upload documents, join discussions, write to-do lists, use the built-in calendar for deadlines & meetings, and view your team’s progress on a timeline. Lots of professional research teams use this.
  • Doodle is a lifesaver when you need to set up a meeting with lots of people. Enter possible dates and times, send a link to all those who need to attend, and get them to enter their availability. You’ll be able to see the best times at a glance.

Want to store / back up your data?

  • Dropbox has won a lot of fans over the past few years. Upload your files with Dropbox and they will be stored on the cloud, with 2GB of free storage. Install it on each device you use, and you can access all your files from anywhere. Access them online, or get a folder on your desktop if you like working that way. Your updates on your PC will sync to your iPad, and so on. Plus if your device breaks, your work isn’t lost.
  • Google Drive is a 15GB storage solution that you already have if you have a Gmail account. You can store files on the cloud directly from your email, which is great for when your supervisor sends you written feedback. If you need more storage, there are upgrade options – and you have a range of cheaper choices with Google Drive than with Dropbox.

Do you have other suggestions? Tell us in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Digital Tools for Research

  1. I can add a few more suggestions that I have found useful. All of these are free-as-in-freedom (as per https://gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html).

    – Org-mode (http://orgmode.org/): A very handy tool for planning, to-do lists and similar things. Can be exported into a range of formats, and can even be used as a publishing tool.
    – Gawk (https://www.gnu.org/software/gawk/): A great data processing and filtering tool. Useful for anyone who has to do a lot of data conversion or modification as part of their research work.
    – AucTeX (https://www.gnu.org/software/auctex/): Makes working with LaTeX an absolute breeze. Auto-completion, corrections and suggestions, and good multiple-file management.
    – OwnCloud (https://owncloud.org/): All the benefits of Dropbox, except no limits in size, your data stays yours forever, and with 100% less NSA surveillance.
    – Jitsi Meet (https://meet.jit.si/): Web-based video and audio chat and collaboration tool.

    I have found all of these to be life-savers.

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