Doing Research: A Tool Inventory

Ok, while I should be working on my dissertation right now … I need a blogging break. While I am learning so much via the content of my open source study, I am also acquiring knowledge about the many tools that assist and help form a research study itself. As my study focuses on the open movement (open source software, open content, open publishing), I have attempted to use as many “open” forms of technology as possible. However, I’ve found so far that I’ve needed to use a good mix of both open, free and proprietary types of technologies. Here’s a bit of a list of what I’ve used so far. If anyone out there has any suggestions of what ELSE I could be using (in place of proprietary tools especially), I would love to know.

Open Office (open source): I’ve recently switched from MS Office Word to Open Office Write as my main word processor, and I’m generally impressed. It’s simple to use, and doesn’t seem to have the irritating auto-formatting (mind of it’s own) issues that MS Word seems to have. Issues? 1) Works fine on my Windows and Linux machines, but has to be ported (via X11) for my Mac. 2) Doesn’t integrate well with Endnote.

Endnote (proprietary):
Endnote is a good tool for creating and managing bibliographies. I don’t know if there is anything equivalent in the open source world, but would love to know if there was. While I can cut-and-paste references from Endnote to Open Office, the MS Office integration is certainly missed.

As for these first tools, sure I could probably be using LaTeX and BibTeX … but just haven’t been. However, I would love to hear reasons why I should be.

PhP, MySQL (open source): This is what drives one of the web surveys that was developed for the study. Together, they form an excellent tool for data collection … and hey, no transcriptions! (A special shout out to Trevor Cunningham for helping set this up)

Skype (freeware-ish): This has been a great VoIP tool (mostly) for communicating with people around the globe. Of course, communicating Skype to Skype is free, but there is a nominal charge for communicating Skype to phone (Skype Out). Connection clarity was usually pretty good, but there were a few issues on some calls. Biggest downfall? No built-in recording that similar tools such as Ineen have built-in.

MixCast Live (proprietary): As Skype didn’t have any built-in recording feature, I turned to my friend Rob Wall and he suggested MixCast Live. While I had to purchase it, it was VERY easy to setup, and recording was a cinch (that is actually the first time that I have ever typed the word cinch … weird). Of course, the downfall is that it’s proprietary AND it only works on Windows. I noticed a few tutorials on how to record with Skype here and there, but nothing seemed as powerful and as easy to use as Mixcast Live. I would love to know if there is a better and easy way of recording Skype conversations.

Transcriva (proprietary): Since I ended up with hours and hours of recorded conversations, I needed a good transcription tool. Luckily, Heather Ross got me onto Transcriva, and while I tried other tools, Transcriva is simply awesome … it’s powerful, easy-to-learn and use, and allows full control of audio files from the keyboard. While I did many transcriptions with Transcriva, I also balanced the load and took a risk on an online etranscription service. I am currently using and so far the service, quality of transcripts, turn-around time and price have been excellent. I would highly recommend the service.

Atlas.ti (proprietary): As I needed a good qualitative data analysis package, I turned to friend and mentor Rick Schwier and he suggested Atlas.ti. While the package is fairly easy to use and powerful, it is costly. But, I have been told about a program called Transana (open source) and it is reportedly software that can do both transcriptioning and data analysis. However, when I look to their website, the tool seems to be focused on video data. So far, I have not yet explored this tool enough to make an accurate judgement. Does anyone out there use it?

Cmap (open source): While Atlas.ti has some concept mapping functionality, Cmap was an excellent tool to use to create a conceptual outline for my project. Of course it’s open source, and as well, works on Windows, Mac and Linux.

WordPress (open source): I should not forget the power of blogging within the scope of my study. Blogging has allowed me to 1) reflect and archive thoughts and comments for myself that can be later used in my writing (for instance, this post could certainly be used to help form a useful guide to research with open source tools), and 2) connect to amazing people who are interested in similar (and sometimes opposing) ideas. Additionally, reading blogs has been an incredible source of data. The impact of blogging on my research cannot be downplayed.

Linux, Apache (open source): Of course, the technology behind the webserver, web survey, web hosting, etc. runs on a Linux server and Apache. It’s invisible for the most part, but it should be mentioned.

Creative Commons (open content):
While it’s not software, the Creative Commons will be important in the dissemination of my final research project. Having the ability to easily copyleft intellectual work is important, and will certainly be one of the biggest turning points for university research in the next few years.

Hmmmmm … I’ve probably forgotten a few, but I think this represents a sample of the many tools that can be used for research. I’m hoping at some point to whittle down the list to include only open source or free tools. If anyone can help me do this through your comments or suggestions, I would love to hear from you.

8 thoughts on “Doing Research: A Tool Inventory

  1. I’ve been using Dragon Naturally Speaking (proprietary) to do transcriptions. This voice recognition software, by Scansoft, is only available for Windows. According to their website, it won’t run on Virtual PC on the Macintosh, either. I haven’t tried. Check the hardware compatability list at the Scansoft site for specific recommendations on digital recorders and microphones to maximize the software’s accuracy.

    My Sony digital recorder shipped with DNS 7 and digital editing software that lets me control playback speed of my audio files as well as start, stop, and rewind. Once I slow the playback speed, I’m able to get pretty good results playing the audio into my ear and speaking everything I hear into my Andrea headset microphone for Dragon to transcribe.

    I’ve been using it for five weeks. This is relevant because the software becomes more accurate with use. After 5 weeks, performance is pretty impressive, but not yet 100%. I think homonyms like once and wants will always be problematic.

    I haven’t looked for an open source equivalent. The reviews I read kept saying DNS was the most accurate. That was very important to me.

  2. I have just finished writing a 70,000 word dissertation in ms word. I have heard about word choking on large documents, and I was very careful; keeping each chapter in seperate file, etc. Even so, by the end, I would spend much more time fixing up mistakes having to do with word’s bugs than with mistakes in the writing! I now try to use latex. Even though it has an initial steeper learning curve, I think this pays for itself in the end. If I had to do it again, I would use latex. I don’t know if open office will have the same problems with large documents. Beware!

  3. You probably want to try NeoOffice/J 1.1 for Mac OS X. For those unaware, it is OpenOffice tweaked to run is a slightly more Mac fashion and, crucially, without having to run under X11.

    It still looks like an ugly PC program to a great degree, but it fits quite well with Mac OS X in other ways.

    The first stable release just got announced so give it a try:

  4. I have been experimenting with a FOSS tool called JabRef as a way of tracking those resources and turning them into bibliographies. JabRef creates BibTeX formatted data files which can be exported, using pre-made (and easily editable) filters, into HTML and RTF files.

    On the technical side, JabRef is written in Java and is totally platform independent. I have shared the source code with a colleague who tells me that it looks easily modifiable (for those high-end users out there). JabRef can be found on SourceForge at


    Just ran across this open source collaboration tool for sharing a single mouse and keyboard between multiple computers with different operating systems, each with its own display, without special hardware. It’s intended for users with multiple computers on their desk since each system uses its own monitor(s).

    How cool is that?

  6. Alec,

    You probably already know this, but Open Office is working to add bibliography management for version 3. In the meantime, they’ve got some information on their project – along with alternatives – posted at

  7. Actually Becky, I didn’t know about this. Thanks for the information. It looks like Open Office will be even more attractive in version 3.0.

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