Recently, I’ve been thinking about the digital tools I use in the process of researching and writing and whether others may find these programs useful. Here, I focus on tools I’ve worked with in various ways for academic and other research over the past year.
Topsy: Twitter research, past and present
If you’re doing any kind of research involving social media and especially Twitter, Topsy is invaluable for its capacity to pull up tweets all the way back to 2006. That’s right – while tools like Storify and indeed Twitter’s own search fall down at anything beyond a month back, Topsy allows you to find (very) old tweets and go to the originals by clicking on the timestamp.
Diigo: Social bookmarking
This is a tool that’s constantly being tweaked, in a good way; it’s a social bookmarking tool with a lot of heft. For example, they’ve introduced a new feature called “research mode” where the bookmarking tool will automatically add the same set of selected tags to each link you save in a session. Upgrading to Diigo Pro allows you to cache and tag (and add highlights and notes to) news articles and other posts.
Camscanner: Organize documents
In my research I look at a lot of documents – everything from meeting minutes to articles in student newspapers to marketing materials and more, and they’re a lot more useful to me in digital form. Camscanner is an app I added to my Android phone about a year ago (it’s available for iThings too), and it allows you to use your phone’s built-in camera as a scanner. You simply photograph the documents, and the app converts them into PDFs. Image quality tends to be excellent, and you can add multiple pages as one document.
Timeglider: Visual timelines
I use timelines often because they help me to put together a visual “story” of what’s happened in a particular period of policy change, or to show events unfolding in a case study. There are quite a few timeline tools floating around, but I’ve been using Timeglider because it allows for visual elements that differentiate the events, including changing the size of an event to match its importance. Timeglider has a free trial but to get the most out of it, you’ll need to upgrade; I decided to go with the $5 per month account. The other tool I would suggest is Timeline JS, which is free and has a nice clean layout and a simple process.
f5: Easy transcription
If you’re like me and you can’t afford to pay someone to transcribe your interviews, you’ll need to make the task as easy on yourself as possible. Because of the cost and unreliability of automatic transcription software, I knew I’d be typing the transcripts myself. For this I chose f5, one of many programs that allow users to import an audio or video file and create a text file as the transcription attached to it. What I’ve found very useful about f5 is that it inserts time codes automatically as you transcribe. The transcript also shows you how long each person spoke and when they said what. If you want to go back to an earlier part of the interview, you can click on the time code. You can also slow down the recording without much vocal distortion. f5 is free, and available for Mac and Windows
Dedoose: Interpret discrete data
This is a qualitative research tool that some use as an alternative to more well-known software like NVivo (which is now available for Mac as well as Windows). These tools help researchers organize and interpret data from focus groups, interviews, field notes, and so on. Each comes with a cost – Dedoose requires a subscription fee that adds up to $100 per year at the student rate, while NVivo has more options, including a per-semester rate of $60. But if you have the budget, these two are worth looking into.
Zotero: Manage your sources
Zotero helps with keeping track of the various sources I’ve collected in my online travels. If I find a good paper but don’t have time to log in to the library page, search for it and download it, I save the source using Zotero’s browser add-on (for Chrome). If I need to access my references from another computer, I can either sign in online or install Zotero and sync it with my account. There’s also an organizing system that includes tagging and folders, and you can place the same item in multiple folders. I was also pleased to learn that labels can be colour-coded – hurrah for visual cues!
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate in the faculty of education at York University. This article is adapted from an earlier post on her blog, Speculative Diction, at universityaffairs.ca.