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Speculative Diction

An update on tools of the trade


Periodically I try to share some of the tools I’m using in the process of researching, writing, presenting, and muddling about online; I’ve noticed that frequently there are things I’m taking for granted that others don’t know anything about (and could really use!). This time around I’m focusing on tools I’ve worked with in various ways for academic and other research over the past year. I think this about as close as I’ll get to doing a “back to school” post, especially since it’s not even mid-August. Enjoy – and I hope you find something new and helpful…

Topsy. 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 excels, allowing you to find (very) old tweets and to go to the originals by clicking on the timestamp. You can search posts within a specific range (down to the hour). However, without a Pro account there are limits, including searches that end at the 10th page of results; I haven’t signed up for this one, but I’m hoping to do so eventually (it would be worth it).

Below: a Topsy search within a specific time-frame shows the earliest #PhDchat tweets, from 2010.

Diigo. Even though I’ve probably discussed it before, Diigo makes the list again because it’s 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 automagically add the same set of selected tags to each link you save in a session. I upgraded to Diigo Pro quite a while ago and I have no regrets, since I do a lot of research online and being able to cache and tag (and add highlights and notes to) news articles and other posts is extremely helpful for this.

I should mention that many people use Evernote in a similar way, but I haven’t really dug into it because the other methods I use have been sufficient. At a certain point in one’s work it also takes so long to figure out and set up a new system that sticking with the current one is a better idea (this is why I never fully got into using Scrivener, though it’s a great tool).

Camscanner. For my research I’m looking 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 which I used to make documents until I was able to buy a decent scanner earlier this year. 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.

Because I have a lot of pages to deal with, I’ve moved on to a scanner with an automatic document feeder, and Adobe Acrobat Pro, with which you can apply OCR on the scanned pages (making them searchable) and combine them into larger documents with sections. But there will always be times when taking a photo of something is the most convenient (or only possible) way, and Camscanner serves that purpose perfectly.

Timeglider. I use timelines quite a lot 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; since I’m using it quite a bit, 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.

Below: a section of a timeline in progress, showing PSE policy changes in Canada with a focus on Ontario. Coloured threads show the length of provincial and federal government mandates and periods of policy implementation.

f5. 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. I chose f5, one of many programs that allows 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 timecodes automatically as you transcribe – so instead of just showing turn-taking, the transcript also shows you how long each person spoke for and when they said what. If you want to go back to an earlier part of the interview, you can click on the timecode. You can also slow down the recording without much vocal distortion. f5 is free, and available for Mac and Windows; it works with or without a footswitch.

Dedoose. This is a qualitative research tool that’s been recommended to me by trusty colleagues, but I haven’t tried it out yet. Since the reviews seem overwhelmingly positive, I thought I’d add it here as an alternative to more well-known software like NVivo (which is now available for Mac as well as Windows). Each of these comes with a cost – Dedoose requires a subscription fee that adds up to $100 per year at the student rate; NVivo has more options, including a per-semester rate of $60. But if you have the budget for it and you want to try something more comprehensive, these two are worth looking into for a start.

Zotero. I finally bit the bullet and picked a reference management tool, though right now I really only use it to organize sources since I already have a system for placing citations, (I complete them as I write). Zotero helps with keeping track of the various sources I’ve collected in my online travels, as it were. 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 it 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 organization system that includes tagging and folders, and you can place the same item in multiple folders. I was pretty pleased to learn that labels can also be colour coded (hurrah for visual cues!).

I hope some of these tools will be of use to you, or that they provide some ideas or starting points for ways of getting things done in your work. If you have further suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below!

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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