Useful Research Tools
Writing a paper can be both joy and pain as the writing and editing sessions oscillate between a flow of excellent sentences conveying the propositional content in a clear and gracious way, and word-by-word slow typing sentences which does not feel elegant nor correct nor clear. The tools I have found, and today deeply appreciate, may not help you achieve a perfect state of mind with great ideas, nor a continuous flow of great words since that is something you have to find for yourself, but the tools introduced below may help you in handling your information, handling your text and let you use time on things that really matter.
This online service and Firefox plug-in is a great tool for saving web-sites and save book details for later references. Since most operating systems support Firefox (I use it with Windows, Mac OSX and Ubuntu Linux) you can bring with you your references across platforms, and as your data is stored in the cloud you can keep a synchronised list across your computers. You can also visit the website where you can review, organise and add more content if you are working on a computer without Firefox, the Zotero platform and administrative privileges. With Zotero you can also export your bibliography to locally installed software, e.g. BibDesk.
LaTex is a great way of working with larger documents as it takes care of your layout so you can focus on the content. It takes some time to learn and get used to, but when you have internalised the instructions you will save much time in everything from checking font consistency throughout the document or add references and citations as LaTex will help you do so. TexShop is easy to install through a package named MacTex. This package is fairly large (1.8 GB) compared to what you would expect if you just want a program to write your 1,5 page papers. Today, space is almost free, and the ease of installation and potential expansion makes this a good package if you are a Mac user and want to create great document layout where you just have to contribute with great content.
If you are using both Zotero and TexShop, or similar software for reference aggregation and LaTex creation, there is no reason to not combine the power of those two. With BibDesk you can control which references you have and make them accessible to LaTex. Since both the generation of text and bibliography can be written in any text-editor BibDesk is a tool for making a JSON-like format more organised for human use. This program lets you define the source type and fill in relevant fields for this source which later automatically can be processed into a bibliography. Neat and time saving.
You probably know that you should take back-ups and with good reason. Even if nothing dramatically happens a computer hard-drive, at least the mechanical, will eventually break down and at that point you will wish you had your data saved somewhere else as well. Back-up was a lot of work when zip, jazz or floppy-disk were what you used as a storage medium, but with an increasing amount of cloud services back-ups can be made in seconds and without leaving the office chair. Dropbox is a great tool for sharing data between computers and people, but also a good back-up tool. You got plenty of similar services competing directly with Dropbox or with other usage (I use Google’s Picasa to back-up my photos), but few have a user interfaces and tailored plug-ins similar to Dropbox. These are very useful. Dropbox do also expand the size of your account as you recruit new members, and this may encourage you to use the ingenious sharing capabilities.
Google Docs is a great tool. I personally do not prefer to write in the Google Docs web-app, but for sharing documents, or even more while collaborating in real-time this free to use office tool is practical. Think of Google docs as a web-based office suite. You can work together with others in real-time manipulating documents, and you can export these documents into most acknowledged file format if you not prefer to just share the link to the document as Google docs support a clever permission system. Google made web-apps a new standard with the Ajax-capabilities in Google Maps, and with Google Docs they show that programs mostly thought of as “native” can be brought into the web domain. With the recent developments in the HTML5 technologies can we expect to see even more functionality being pushed into the browser.
From time to time you find yourself in a situation where you need to interview someone. This is a great way of getting second hand experience and to ask the questions you may have directly to the interviewee, but do not get tricked, you may feel you that you can remember most of the conversation as you are sitting in the situation nodding your head, but what you will discover is that pure remembering or taking simple notes on a piece of paper will not suffice. A good idea is to bring a recorder and ask permission to record the conversation, as long as your intentions are to have correct footage of what took place during the interview when writing and not to publish the material this should be OK. Transcribing the interview can be a time consuming task, but software intended for the purpose can make it easier. Transcriber is an Open Source transcriber which lets you play the sound-file and write what being said at various places in the file. This linking is good as you later can go back an revise the particular location of the sound-file without having to search through all of it. It also makes it easier to transcribe a you can both write, and start and stop the sound clip from the same program.
I got to know about this program through Joe (thank you Joe) a late evening working in Alison House. Most of the time spent in front of computers at our master’s working environment has been spent on Macs, and perhaps the biggest difference, now that Apple are using Intel processors and much of the same hardware as Windows-based PCs, is the user experience and the focus on the human touch. Perhaps it is more experimental etnomethodology conducted at Cupertino than in Redmond, perhaps it is different target groups or just a different ideas on what computers are and how they should work, anyway, FocusWriter is a different text-editor.
Here is a short introduction to some of the programs which made my day easier when I wrote my master thesis. I cannot promise that these tools will write your thesis, or make your day, but hopefully can they help you paying attention to where it ought to be paid, on your tasks. PS: I didn’t put in any links to any of the tools (except my favourite distribution-package of Latex), so you can use perhaps the most idiosyncratic tool of this decade: Google.
The picture is taken by the Flick user Anoldent and released under a Creative Commons licence attribution and share-alike.