6 min read

Free and Cheap Apps for the Digital Researcher

I often get asked about the various programmes I’m using for research, as I’m always looking out for opensource or affordable programs. Here are a list of those that I’ve found and find useful (most cross platform, but some only Mac).

Writing: Scrivener

(Mac/PC Beta, $US20/free demo)

Scrivener was recommended to me by fellow designer and researcher Jeremy Yuille (cheers!). Used by screenwriters, academics, basically anyone who needs to write long texts, it lets you create outlines, write in chunks, and drop in other resources.

I’m using it to lay up my writing, and it does work well, as it makes outlining easier (OK, Microsoft Word does do this, but in a far less obvious way).

Scrivener corkboard view

There are different views you can use, depending on whether you think in words or with post-its.

To be honest, I like using it just for draft writing!

It also does things like versioning and other features I haven’t even tapped into yet!

Available on Mac, iPad, beta in Windows.

Other options: LaTeX (free, all platforms)

File management: Citeulike and Mendeley

I used to use Endnote at my former university (where it was available for free for students, and also connected to our library database: one click referencing!) but after I lost it in a hard drive fail, I decided to look at other options

Citeulike (free, web based) has the advantage of being a web based lookup service (most things are there) so that you can usually find most book references, and access them from any computer. You can also share your libraries with other people.

The citeyoulike library

Mendeley(free, with paid online storage options) is a reference and file manager application. What I like about it that it also creates an iTunes like library of any articles (papers etc) you have, and allows you to add notes and annotations on top of them within the app. The free version also gives 2Gb of online backups/synching for files and annotations, and can also let you share these with other researchers. It also lets you do Cite-as-You-Write (as does Endnote) in Word and Open Office.Available on Mac, PC, and iOS reader.

Mendeley file system
Annotating a PDF through the viewer

Other options: I know many people use the Zotero Firefox plugin, (also stores files and images, but particularly useful if you have lots of web links, and imports to Mendeley), and have also heard good things about the Mac-only Papers. And good ol’ Endnote.

Backups/File Sharing: Dropbox

Free with paid options

It’s every researcher’s worst nightmare for their computer to fail or be stolen just before a big deadline. Or the inconvenience of working across different computers. That’s where Dropbox is a godsend (at least in the UK where internet is unmetered).

I have all my research files within a Dropbox folder. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a normal folder, but every time I make changes, it pushes them up to a web folder … and to any other computers I have that are connected. The iPhone app is an easy way to get photos off your camera.

Shared folders are also an easy way to create a shared resource.

Scrivener in action
My PhD folded in Dropbox — 3Gb, all safely uploaded to the web and synched to my other computers!

I have the paid version, not only because it gives me more storage space (a whopping 50Gb), but paying a few dollars extra also gives me versioning so that I never have to worry about accidentally deleting a file again.
Other options: I’ve heard good things about Wuala, but there are a lot of others. And of course, for Mac people, there’s Time Machine (though you can obviously use this as well as Dropbox).

Distraction Management: Freedom and Antisocial

Mac/Windows $US15 each, $20 bundle

Ah, the internet. So many things to look at. Which isn’t always good. Freedom and Antisocial work for different situations:
Freedom lets you completely turn off the internet for a set period of time. Turn it on, plug in your time, and your internet will be completely blocked for that period unless you reboot your computer. (It’s worth noting that it only counts time your computer is active: if it goes to sleep with ten minutes left on the clock, that time will carry over when you wake it up again).

Anti-social is useful for when you still need the internet, but want to avoid the pyramid of distraction, namely social media. It also lets you plugin extra sites that you want to be barred from.

Getting Things Done: Teuxdeux

Free webapp, $US1.99 iPhone app

A beautifully designed webapp from Tina Roth Eisenberg aka swissmiss, Teuxdeux has won a devoted following amongst designers. Simply add a task, and then click on it when it’s done to see it crossed out. Unfinished tasks automatically advance.


Video Analysis: TAMS

(free, Mac only)

TAMS Analyser is probably not for the technophobe — it’s coding is a bit more raw than its expensive (and PC only) competitor nVivo. Howver, if you’re prepared to learn to type curly brackets to open and close statements, it’s surprisingly powerful, with its video player even letting you usefully play footage at slower speeds. As an opensource app, it has minimal documentation, but there are some wonderful user made guides floating around).

TAMS analyser
Yes, it definitely puts the ’source’ into opensource, but TAMs is surprisingly well featured past that

Project Management — openProj (free, all platforms)

While this is one of the freeware apps I’m least happy with (it is limited, and hard to print from well), openProj is useful in getting the job done for mapping out timelines.

Options: I have used Merlin ($US50, Mac) in the past and really liked it.


Short Bursts of Writing: IAWriter ($US10)

For bits of writing that have to get done, IAWriter by Oliver Richestein (aka @IA) is a beautiful to use *and* look at Mac app, with full-screen mode and formatting shortcuts.

Other Options: Darkroom and Writeroom (Mac and PC respectively, $US20 and free beta)

Communities and Sharing: Academia.edu/Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Slideshare/Issuu

OK, these aren’t strictly apps, but given researach is as much about getting your research out there as doing it, I thought I’d add it in.

  • Academia.edu (yes, its name includes the .edu) looks to be the LinkedIn of academics (and if you aren’t on LinkedIn, you should be).
  • However, in terms of keeping up with what regular people are up to, Facebook is pretty useful (mainly because everyone is on it). It’s particularly good for ad-hoc groups: my PhD cohort have a private Facebook group that we use to keep in touch.
  • And for those that don’t get how Twitter is useful for research: think of it as your personal news feed and way to connect with people. I get a lot of information about conferences and new articles from twitter, and often use it to ask questions. (For example, check out the recurring #phdchat stream).
  • I also make a point of telling people to put the slides from any presentation they do on Slideshare (free web service, with paid options). Not only is it a wonderful way to share what you’ve done with other people (rather than sending around PPT slides and risking them bouncing from people’s emails) but it serves as a passive way for people to find out about your research. A lot of people search on the site for various topics, so your slides could well reach people who wouldn’t know about you otherwise (or be prepared to skim through a 8 page PDF). For books, try Issuu.

Other options: I’m interested in the Mendeley.com community (which is part of the model) as you can create circles and follow other researchers’ work. However, it’s still in its developing stages. I also urge people to not use Scribd anymore, as it used to have free access but now forces anyone who wants to download your PDFs to either pay or upload some other PDFs. Not very open.


What other apps are you using out there? I’d love to know your thoughts.