Research tools and other technology, part II

In part I of my series of blog posts on technology and tools for research, I briefly explained the hardware I use to gather and organize data. In this post, I discuss the software that I have found to be most useful for reading and writing. My intention is not to be prescriptive. This is just what works for me. However, I think the tools that I use could be broadly useful to people with a range of learning styles. For my own research, I have used and ruled out a variety of tools because they were too expensive or clunky to use. When possible, I used trial versions first. I also greatly benefitted from reading forums and figuring out how to integrate these technologies together.

Software, or things the magical trolls living inside my computer make my life 100x easier:

1. DEVONThink (DT) (for organizing)

DT is a one-stop shop for organizing, tagging, grouping, and writing about your data. It is especially useful to folks in the humanities who are dealing with a lot of text and images. The website and forums have a lot of information about how to use it, but I just want to highlight a few things and show why they are useful to me.

A. Organizing/filing:

Before DT, I had (and still have) a folder called “PDF Library” on my desktop, where I stored book chapters, e-books, scans from class, etc. I had to remember where each item was, but if belonged in more than one category, I had no choice but to duplicate the item, which would also mean not having access to my notes and highlighting if they changed in one of the items.

DEVONThink allows you to put the same item in multiple folders (called “groups”) so that you can find and access it through different searches. If you, like me, prefer a kind of spatialized folder hierarchy, it can do that but also helps you find where things are.

You can put everything in here, if you want. Notes, emails, PDFs, images, even Zotero items. Since my laptop us used for academic and personal purposes. I have a dissertation database in DT that puts everything related to that project in one place and enables me to search within it.

B. Searching with artificial intelligence

No, really. Sometimes I don’t even realize certain things are on my computer until it finds and suggests them to me as a related search item. It won’t come up with ideas for you, but it will remind you of connections between texts based on secondary and tertiary meanings of words. So that is pretty awesome.

C. Work directly in DEVONThink

I have a folder of to do lists in there, and a whole hierarchy of folders for concepts that my dissertation is developing. In each one, there is an RTF (Rich Text File) where I can write as much as I want. Unlike doing this kind of file structure on your computer and having to wait for Word to open all the individual files, DT does it instantaneously within the program itself so that you don’t have to be running multiple things. In fact, if you don’t even have DT open, you can “deposit” things into your inbox for later sorting just by dragging items to the floating tray. I still have my online to do list (TeuxDeux) for day to day stuff, but DT helps me make timelines and chart long-term stuff. Let’s say I have a list of books I want to read. I can make the timeline, even using one of their templates. And then (magically or artificially intelligently — take your pick), the right side column shows related docs including (!) PDFs of those texts, if I have them, or mentions of them in my papers, library, or whatever else is in the database.

There are other cool things about DT, too, that have to do with setting up workflows, but I will leave you with this for now. Get the Pro version – it is cheap with the student discount and lets you make more than one database.

2. Zotero

Zotero is an excellent citation tool because it allows you to keep a database of materials as you collect them. I have both the stand-alone version and the version that lives in my Firefox browser. The best thing about Zotero is that with a few clicks, you can create an organized file structure and add things directly to it. Later, you can go back and add RTFs and annotations to your files. Say that you have some images you found in an online archive. Zotero keeps the original citation info but also lets you do data analysis by making notes and marking up the page while looking at the image.For me, this has replaced my previous tendency and need to print everything out and mark it up. If you have a tablet of some sort, you can probably do the markups on your screen.

The other thing I like about Zotero is that everything is stored online and you can share it with other people. If something happens to your computer, your citations and work are not lost. You can even upload PDFs to it. Recently, I installed a new hard drive on my computer and was able to just download the Firefox plug-in and get my files back. This means I could access Zotero on any computer, really, if I had my login information. Unlike some of the citation softwares you have to pay for (like Endnote), you can take your Zotero library with you after you leave your institution.

Brian Croxall has a great post on the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, “Zotero vs. Endnote” that is worth reading.

P.S. Zotero also integrates with DEVONThink if you download or write a script.

3. Scrivener (for writing)

Technically, it is screenwriting software, but Scrivener works for me for several reasons:

A. I am a non-linear thinker. My internal workflow more closely resembles one of those clothes hanger mobiles I had to construct for book reports in the fourth grade than anything I actually write in a Word document. Scrivener has features that support this, allowing me to disaggregate parts of outlines and projects and work on them individually or at the same time, even moving them around in the order of the document without messing anything up. Because of this, Scrivener has the flexibility to work with both large and small projects.

B. I am a spatial thinker. Scrivener has a virtual corkboard, various outline views (including ones that, like DT, look like nested folders) and other features that activate the part of my brain that likes to print things out, write them on note cards, and sort them. Scrivener also allows you to split the screen horizontally or vertically to look at two parts of the document at the same time. This is really helpful for bibliographies (if you aren’t using citation software) and for checking against your previous writing and comments.

It should be noted that if you are adept at using macros and styles on Word, you can also sort and move things in this way. However, the navigation pane in Word is not as good at Scrivener AT ALL and only comes in a choice of thumbnail and list views. Also, Scrivener has a separate area for your research but Word would require you to have it all in one document, which would probably crash your computer.

4. TAMS Analyzer (for interview transcription)

Its free. You can upload your digital sound files into it and transcribe them. I like it.

5. TeuxDeux (online to do list with a great iPhone app)

A life saver, really. I don’t get things done that are not on my to do list(s). TeuxDeux lets you plan in the short and long term, is a simple interface, and works really well on my phone. It does not color-code items by area (work, school, etc.) like Google Calender does, nor does it sync with Google Calender, but it is really good for marking off and moving tasks between days.

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