Year for Productivity: Session 12: In Number Like the Stars – Choosing Software for Academic Workflow

year_productivity_graphic_12From our survey of the readers of this blog (thanks so much for responding,  and if you haven’t you still can –  hint,  hint) we know most of you are academic librarians,  with a few academic researchers and others in the mix.   So why are we devoting a third of this course to productivity for the academic researcher?  We hope to be directly useful to them,  first of all.   Secondly,  those of you who are librarians may do research yourself and want the best tool for the job.   Finally,  and perhaps most important,  academic librarians want to help their students and faculty find ways to be more productive.   Some of you may teach classes on productivity tools,  or point out useful tools in other interactions with students and faculty.

The first problem, then, is identifying the tools that might be useful.  The difficulty isn’t a lack of software tools – some days it seems the number of them is almost infinite.   The problem is identifying the most useful,  and finding good reviews or other comments to separate the wheat from the chaff or the gold from the dross or (enter your favorite metaphor here).   Another problem is that productivity tools span across operating systems (PC,  Mac,  or Linux,  anyone?)  and app ecosystems (iOS,  Android,  Windows,  BlackBerry) and you will have users who use all of the above.

Identifying tools for undergrads is easier,  as their research needs are not as intense.   They need the most help identifying where to start their research and find information,  but librarians have that down stone cold and have been teaching these skills all along.   Beyond that,  undergrads need a good word processor and one of the easy-to-use reference managers such as Easybib,  for example.  Some of the productivity apps useful for everyone,  such as Evernote or OneNote,  are useful for them,  and there are plenty of good apps that help them with time management such as the Research Project Calculator.   A Google search of,  for example,  “apps for students”  turns up a number of useful articles,  including some guides written by librarians.

The biggest problem is with finding the best tools for those beyond the undergraduate level,  those doing research over the long term,  of longer length,  and for professional publication.   They need rich,  full-featured tools for finding literature in their fields,  collecting,  analyzing,  and managing data,  keeping track of references,  writing,  time management,  and more.  Where to identify these is a cosmic question almost as important as the answer to Life,  the Universe,  and Everything (which,  as all readers of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker series know,  is 42).

Blogs written by and for academic researchers are one fruitful source.   Of course,  it can be a little frustrating that every post you find by a grad student,  faculty member,  postdoc,  or researcher describing his/her academic workflow uses a different set of tools.   There are two blogs we think are the gold standard,  though.   ProfHacker and GradHacker.   Both started with a focus on research tools,  though have broadened out to include other aspects of life as a professor or grad student.  They still have plenty of great posts on tools,  however.

Research guides written by librarians are another good source.   In exploring them for this post I did not find any more extensive than the one Crystal wrote for her Productivity Tools for Graduate Students class.

Still,  what would be ideal is a directory of research tools that covers all the needs of the academic researcher.  When oh when,  you may ask,  will such a thing exist?  It is my great pleasure to tell you that one does.   It is called Bamboo DiRT.   Bamboo is a project for digital humanities researchers,  and DiRT stands for Digital Research Tools.   “Bamboo DiRT is a tool, service, and collection registry of digital research tools for scholarly use. Developed by Project Bamboo, Bamboo DiRT makes it easy for digital humanists and others conducting digital research to find and compare resources ranging from content management systems to music OCR, statistical analysis packages to mindmapping software.”

Choosing one of those topics takes you to a list of tools.   The entry for each tool has the name,  a link,  a description,  tags,  and comments.   This extremely useful web site is about to get even better with the addition of reviews for tools.   You can by browse the directory by New and Updated,  Recommended,  Category (these are similar but not identical to the topics on the top page),  Tags,  or View All.

Another directory of tools is the Top 100 Tools for Learning.  It is a list in alphabetical order, with the type of software, and its rank in the annual listings since 2007.  It is based on recommendations by educators worldwide.  There is a 300+ page PDF A Practical Guide to the Top 100 Tools for Learning that discusses each tool and is available for purchase.

So,  how to choose the best tools?   It is going to be different for each researcher depending on the kind of research done,  the computer system,  and what tools the researcher is already comfortable with.   For the new researcher beginning from scratch,  I would suggest starting with DiRT,  looking at Crystal’s guide to productivity tools,  checking to see if your library offers a similar workshop,  and starting to follow ProfHacker and GradHacker.

As always,  if you know of any other directories of tools,  useful research guides or blogs,  please let us know in the comments or by email.   We like to share,  and we like to learn from you.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  Choose one of the Bamboo DiRT categories above, and read descriptions until you find a tool that interests you.

(2)  Go to that tool, play around with it.

(3)  Report on whether you would recommend the tool, and for what purpose, in the comments or by email, and tell us if we have permission to post it in the comments.

Selected Readings:

Wax, D.  Ultimate Student Resource List.  Article from Lifehack that is a compilation of previous articles on the best tools, websites, and advice for students.

Experiencing the iPad – “This blog is about…well, iPads of course and how people experience them. In this case, it’s how people in higher education experience the iPad. We’ll review apps (both educational and entertaining- and those instances when the two collide). We’ll highlight personal experiences through photos and video of actual iPad users. We’ll offer insights about extending the use of certain apps in and out of the classroom for both students and instructors. And, hopefully we’ll engage the educational community around this topic of iPads in higher education on a broader scale.”

Educational Technology and Mobile Learning – blog aimed at all levels of education, heavy on iOS/iPad apps.  Great categories, can find posts on a variety of tools and types of tools.


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