One of the things I enjoy about research is that each day is different. Many projects have a predictable progression from research question to data collection, analysis and reporting. Other requests are less structured and can fall anywhere on the research cycle. These unpredictable requests usually have high priorities, short timelines and messy data that needs to be organized.
Following are five free tools that I have found helpful completing unexpected and high-priority requests.
Level of difficulty: 8 out of 10
R is both a program language and an environment for statistics and graphics. The command line approach can be intimidating (think back to the days of DOS, before windows) but its capacity for advanced multivariate statistics and graphing makes it worth the time and effort to learn. RStudio makes R much easier to use and is free. There is also a large community of users willing to help out those who are starting out with tutorials (blogs, pdf, video) and discussion forums. If you have never tried R or tried it but felt intimidated, I highly recommend taking a look at RStudio.
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 10
Twitter is a social network that invites users to share thoughts and comments. However, those comments must be limited to 140 characters. I’ve included Twitter as a tool because of the social networking capacity. Not only are people sharing thoughts about their food, the person standing beside them on the bus and how they feel about the color green, they are also sharing professional resources. There are several networks on Twitter that are populated be people who are more than willing to make recommendations on literature and resources on every topic under the sun. If you are doing a literature review, a quick post on twitter can result in some amazing resources that you may not otherwise have considered or had access to.
Although Twitter is very easy to use, I’ve listed the level of difficulty as a 3 because there are some elements of etiquette and recommended constraints that you should familiarize yourself with before you get started.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 10
Etherpad is a tremendous collaboration tool that allows multiple users to edit/create the same document at the same time. A document space is created and attached to a unique web address which can be shared with others. All changes that are made are color coded to each person that has been working on the document. A chat window provides an opportunity to discuss changes to the text and multiple versions can be saved to track changes as your document evolves. Although Etherpad was purchased and shut down by Google, the source code has been made available and (thankfully) a new site is up and running at ietherpad.com
Level of difficulty: 1 out of 10
Joliprint is an online tool that will turn web pages into very printer friendly pdfs. The web page text and graphics are reformatted into a two-column newspaper style layout with a timestamp in the header and url in the footer. In addition to being able to save the pdf, joliprint also includes options to share the pdf as a tweet, facebook post, email or shortened url (prin.tt). Archiving articles has never been easier.
Level of difficulty: 1 out of 10
PDFUnlock is an online tool that was brought to my attention by a colleague. There are many cases where it is necessary to compile data from pdfs and not being able to copy and paste the text in leads to wasted time with data entry and validation. PDFUnlock asks you to upload a locked pdf, converts it to a format that can be copied/pasted and then lets you download it again. One word of caution though, since you upload your file to PDFUnlock give serious consideration to issues of copyright and data sensitivity before you use this tool.