Ten No-Cost/Low-Cost Tools

What is research capacity? Research capacity and TEL SPNECRE Tens of things

In the course of work on the SPNECRE project, participants often cited the difficulties of securing funding to support their research activities, or, in the case of PhD students, of eking out a limited research training grant.  One of the most useful kinds of ‘recommendations’ for early career researchers – any researchers, in fact – were of low-cost and no-cost digital tools to support research.

So here are the software applications and online tools which were mentioned.  If a researcher were to use this ‘suite’ of tools rather than the proprietary and full cost alternatives, they could make savings of hundreds of pounds!  These aren’t specific to TEL researchers – but they give a flavour of some of the activities in which TEL researchers find themselves engaged.

As with some of our other ‘tens’ as soon as we circulated this list, people began to put forward their own suggestions, so there are more than ten.  In each case – it’s worth thinking not only about the software tool or application – but also the research practices they emerge from, represent and enable.

Bibliography and Citation Management

Connotea (http://www.connotea.org/) and CiteuLike (http://www.citeulike.org/) are online citation and bibliography managers. They both allow you to build up online collections which you can either share or keep private; it is possible to set up automatic searches of journals and fields so your collection grows as relevant articles are published.

Zotero (http://www.zotero.org/) and Citeline (http://citeline.mit.edu/) are rather different.  Zotero is a plugin for the Firefox Web Browser which has evolved rapidly to offer library sharing, collaboration tools and download management. Citeline is specifically for sharing, publishing and visualising bibliographies which are already in (or are converted into) Bibtex format.

Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com) has emerged more recently and combines many of the features of the above tools (including enhanced import and export functions, automatic citation extraction from PDF files and bibliography formatting).  It provides a client application so that you can organise downloaded articles and other documents, and supports sharing through a ‘social network’ tool.

LIbraryThing (http://www.librarything.com/) is more oriented towards books – good social network functions (see what other people who read this also read); recommendations and links to Amazon. Some nice features including a ‘bookshelf’ visualisation which arranges images of the covers of all your books more neatly on screen than they probably are in real life.

Document Production and Management

LaTeX and BibTeX (http://www.latex-project.org/) LaTeX is a very powerful typesetting system.  It does involve writing ‘markup’ into documents so if you are used to ‘WYSIWYG’ (‘what you see is what you get’) word processors there may be a steep learning curve if you switch.  However, if you want complete control over the formatting and layout of documents, and need support for diagrams, flowcharts, mathematical symbols and scientific equations, LaTeX may be the answer.  BibTeX is the integrated bibliography management system which allows in-text citations and formatted bibliographies to be incorporated into documents.  This is a particularly interesting example of ‘disciplinary cultures’ -  the features listed above make LaTeX a favoured environment for computer scientists – to the point where some conferences and journals expect papers to be submitted in LaTeX format.  In social sciences and education, its use is rare.

Google Docs (http://docs.google.com/) is part of the Google suite of tools and offers more than just free online storage – it allows you to share documents that you have uploaded and edit them online.  You can store pretty much anything and edit presentations, text documents, spreadsheets and drawings.  The features are limited compared to a full ‘Office’ package (word processor formatting is clunky, animations in presentations are less varied than Powerpoint or Keynote and the range of functions in the spreadsheet are limited) – but you can access it from anywhere and it is free!

NPD: organise data, write documents, expose corporate crime

Notepad Deluxe (NPD) (http://ibrium.se/npdmain.html) Notepad Deluxe is an integrated (Macintosh only) notepad tool which combines word-processor, database and wiki-like features in a single application.  It allows you to manage not only full documents but text fragments, images, PDF file and build your own hierarchies and categories, using internal hyperlinks to connect documents. concepts and external resources. Originally built for Mac OS 9, it has been overtaken in some respects by more recent web tools, but it is still offers an interesting alternative way of working.  You can download a free trial and the full version costs $25.

Aficionados of Steig Larsson’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” will recognise NPD as the protagonist Mikael Blomkvist’s research tool of choice.

Slideshare (http://www.slideshare.net/) allows you to upload and share Powerpoint and Keynote presentations but also Word and  PDF documents, and videos.  It is also possible to add audio tracks to presentations, so that they can be watched online with a commentary.  Worth looking at as an alternative to Google Docs with a slightly different set of features and possibilities.

Data Collection and Analysis


CMapTools (http://cmap.ihmc.us/) allows users to construct, navigate, share and criticize knowledge models represented as concept maps. It allows users to, among many other features, construct their Cmaps in their personal computer, share them on servers (CmapServers) anywhere on the Internet, link their Cmaps to other Cmaps on servers, automatically create web pages of their concept maps on servers, edit their maps synchronously (at the same time) with other users on the Internet, and search the web for information relevant to a concept map. Free to download, runs across platforms.

Gridworks (http://code.google.com/p/freebase-gridworks/) is a downloadable, open source data environment that allows you to load data, understand it, clean it up, reconcile it internally.  While Gridworks was developed to enable the conversion and ‘cleaning’ of data for incorporation into semantic web and ‘linked data’ applications, it has far wider applications in quantitative and mixed methods data preparation, selection, visualisation and analysis.


Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) A free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems.  Excellent not only for supporting transcription (and allowing reduction of ‘hiss’ and other problems) but also for cleaning up audio recordings, converting formats of audio files and compressing huge data files without losing quality.

TAMS Analyzer (http://tamsys.sourceforge.net/) A Mac OS X and Linux environment for qualitative researchers that includes support for transcription of audio and video, coding of transcripts (optionally linked to audio/video files), complex analysis, the construction of hierarchical coding systems and reporting/exporting in different formats.

Odds and Ends

Voice Memos With smartphones becoming increasingly powerful and versatile, many researchers use ‘Voice Memo’ applets as an alternative to a separate audio recorder.  They are also useful for ‘on the spot’ thoughts, observations and insights.

Mac OS Preview If you are an Apple User, the Preview Application (which is the default viewer for PDF files and images) has some nice annotation features – useful for marking up documents, commenting on drafts, or even basic qualitative data analysis. You can underline, strike out, or highlight text selections, stick notes anywhere and add comments which appear in the margin of the document.

Stickies Most operating systems have some version of the on-screen ‘post-it note’.  Many researchers use these for quick ‘to do’ notes, but it is worth investigating how to label, colour-code, sort and export the contents of these notes as ways of organising more complex data, references, ideas and contacts.

Skype (http://www.skype.com) Of the various instant messenger, chat and video applications that now exist, Skype seems to win out on the basis of cross-platform support; multi-way audio conferences; text, audio and video options; file transfer; and screen sharing – the last being particularly useful in TEL collaborations where it can be used to demonstrate software on screen with a live commentary via an audio or video link.  Also very useful for online focus groups and focused interviews …

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