Tools for the upcoming scholar

My oldest son has now graduated high school and is getting ready to head to college this upcoming fall. I am compiling a list of recommendations for him of tools I wish I had access to when I was in college, tools that help a scholar. These are tools that help with workflow, project pipelines and overall productivity. The tools we have  do not determine our creativity, but they can certainly influence how we go from ideas to projects and projects to products.

I have gotten the list down to 3 tools I would highly recommend for scholarly work. You could have them all up and running on a Mac or Windows PC in short period of time, and for under $50 (two are free with the potential to subscribe for additional space and/or privacy). I am recommending three particular tools, but they can also be considered generically. In a generic sense they are:

  1. Repository with version control (storage of your files that keeps track of version changes over time so you always have a backup and you can always revert to early versions without having to manually maintain separate files with separate version names)

  2. Bibliographic citation manager and electronic library (stores all of your pdf papers, reports, etc in an organized and searchable interface; and allows citation and bibliography generation (and reorganizes for different formats with the click of a button- not hours of manual edits)

  3. Integrated development environment for writing projects

For repositories and version control I recommend Git and GitHub. Git and GitHub will take some learning, but once learned it is an invaluable resource, an organizational tool and a time saver (no longer worrying about saving multiple versions of your project files as each “commit” saves a snapshot of your project that you could revert back to at anytime. GitHub simply adds an web based storage feature. You can learn Git and GitHub for free, you can start using it for free. Eventually you will likely want a (reasonably priced) account to have private repositories.

And there is an open source book to get you started:

Bibliographic citation manager and electronic library I recommend Mendeley

Like Git and GitHub you can get started for free. Only once you have a library that is over 2 GB on their server do you need to start paying for space (or if you want more than one private “group”). I have about 1100 pdfs in my library at the moment and I am only 1/2 way toward needing a paid account. I think most college students could get through their PhD without ever needing a paid account with Mendeley. That means you have plenty of time to work with it and get comfortable with it until paying for anything. Mendeley offers an excellent desktop app for your workflow and syncing your desktop library with your online Mendeley account which then allows you to sync with your other devices. It has a “cite while you write” feature (for MS word and open office, more on this as a limitation in a  bit), and formats bibliographies for thousands of journal formats. I would be surprised if a college student came across a format that Mendeley did not include (particularly since there are basically 2-3 formats used in most college courses (APA, MLA, Chicago).

As an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for writing I recommend Scrivener

Scrivener might be the only IDE for writing out there - most people handle the functionality of an IDE on their own with folders and files organized as best they can on their local computer, or even on a cloud. But Scrivener offers much more for large writing projects - something that is greater than 20-30 pages (that is not a hard and fast rule). Where writing your project benefits from multiple smaller files that you can modularize, and rearrange as needed, working on one or two at a time and always having a user interface that allows you to see the overall structure and relationship between the component parts. Scrivener has a trial version - but eventually you would have to pay for it and the going rate is under $50 (and even lower with an academic discount).

A major caveat with the above tools is that there is currently no “plug in” for Mendeley to work well with Scrivener so you need to find a work around for bibliographies. With the growing popularity of Scrivener, I am hopeful that a plug in will eventually come out. Until then I export my final Scrivener projects to MS word to cite and create a works cited page. There are other work arounds available (for example, if you are using APA styles, you can simply write your Scrivener project with the author’s names and publication dates in the text as an APA style would do and then in a Mendeley folder that includes all the papers being cited simply “copy” an APA formatted bibliography and paste into a Scrivener document (since APA uses an alphabetical listing). With this you lose the auto updating of the Mendeley bibliography - which is a bummer and keeps me from using that particular work around. Most of my projects eventually have to be exported to MS word anyway, so I take that final step of adding the Mendeley citations to that word document as my final close reading of the document.

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