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The Student Insider

Tools to kick-start your academic research


Written by
Lucy Bodenham

Tips to help you with collating research and apps to assist you with your referencing.

A student researching in Senate House library

At the start of your academic year the reading you have to undertake might seem like an endless ocean of sources and references.

Fear not, the key to successful research is to get organised and establish a method that works best for you. Your study guides will point you in the right direction and there is lots of support available on the student portal for research tips. But what else is available to crack this tough nut? Help is on hand, we take a look at some useful tools and apps to make research easier. The good news is many of these are free!

Cite This For Me is a tool to help you prepare your bibliography and checks references while saving you hours spent on referencing. Alongside referencing it helps you cite correctly and avoid unintentional plagiarism.

This tool can cite books, websites, podcasts and more, with a Google type search system, and it is free of charge. It has all the key known referencing styles, notably APA, Chicago, MLA or Harvard style and your bibliography is saved for up to a week.

Mendeley is a free package to organise your papers, read and annotate your PDFs. It integrates with social networking so you can collaborate with private or open groups. You can add papers from your hard drive or locate and bookmark from anywhere on the web. You can also organise all your research and star your favourite PDFs or topics. With Mendeley you can generate citations and bibliographies in Microsoft Word, LibreOffice and LaTeX.

The most tedious part of writing a paper is slogging through your research reference and formatting this correctly and consistently. Instead of torturing yourself by inputting it manually, BibMe writes citations for you.

From the BibMe site, use the search bar to find your source material, which will then be transformed into MLA, APA, Chicago, or Turabian style. Or you can type in the details of one of your references manually to get the same magical output.

The BibMe website also hosts a useful set of citation guides in the four major styles, such as the APA guide on how to cite a range of sources from books, magazines to film or photographs.

Zotero is a free and open source Firefox add-in which helps you collate, organise and even share your research. With a single click it can collect PDFs, images, audio, video, and screenshots of web pages where it indexes all the content in your library so you can locate items with a few keystrokes. It is available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

Snagit is a screen snapshot program enabling you to capture image and video display and audio. While this is not free, it is a quality program well worth the cost and there is a 15-day free trial. It has a built-in image editor to edit your screenshots further with the option to add annotations. You can then insert your work directly into presentations or handouts or record quick videos. Snagit has an education version available at a lower price for students.

Google Scholar sifts through the web's clutter and targets peer-reviewed and research-based articles, primarily from journals, papers, and other sources. It helps you explore related works, citations, authors and publications. You can also save searches, retrieve previous discoveries, and search the full text of found reports.

Google Scholar enables you to create a Scholar Profile to promote yourself and helps you track citations to your publications, giving you greater control over references to your content.

Another useful tip is to sign up for email alerts on your specific topic of interest. You will then be sent newly published papers which match your search criteria.

Purdue's Online Writing Lab, known as OWL, is an essential formatting resource for research papers, available for worldwide use. It breaks down all the nitty-gritty formatting details you need to know, offers general writing and article construction tips, and has a Google-powered search engine to help you sift out specific tutorials.

There are also resources to assist you to understand specific writing assignments like book reports, research papers, academic proposals for conference presentations, journal articles and books. Many of the sections provide multiple examples and visuals for how to get the formatting right – an especially helpful touch.

oTranscribe – a free web app to transcribe recorded interviews, videos or audio. Useful for journalists or academics. You can slow down speech or pause and restart with keyboard shortcuts. When you have finished you can export your transcript to Marksown, plain text or as Google Docs. Bear in mind this app won’t automatically transcribe lectures for you, however it does help with cutting down fiddling with two devices and keyboards.

Notability by Ginger Labs is one of the best-selling apps out there, according to the Apple Store. This modestly priced app can be used to effectively capture visual aids in presentations, lectures done on whiteboards, and lets you integrate all kinds of handwritten notes and formulas. The app also comes with an audio recording feature to help you record your lectures. It has good flexibility and is compatible with a lot file formats such as .doc, .ppt, .pdf, .xls and other extensions. [Right: Screenshot of Notability - an app to capture and produce notes creatively.]

Instapaper is a simple tool where you can save long articles on your device for easy reading later on. The benefits are one click bookmarking on-the-go for further perusal, but you also get a clutter-free and comfortable environment for reading without any distractions. It is available for iPhone and Android.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a collection of public and copy permitted historical texts located at the Fordham University History Department and Center for Medieval Studies. This can be a useful source for history or law students. The texts are presented simply for education purposes, without any distracting advertising. Areas covered are Ancient, Medieval and Modern key sections, including resources on Ancient and Medical Law.

Another public resource is The Library of Congress Research Tools  which offers a wide range of online databases, internet resources and its own online catalogue.

BioMed Central is an online publisher of free peer-reviewed articles with over 170 medical, biology and chemistry journals. This can be a useful source for students studying MSc Infectious Diseases or MSc Global Health Policy programmes for further reading on related topic areas.

World Digital Library has over 12,000 items ranging from 8000 BCE to 2000 CE about 193 countries. A project of the U.S. Library of Congress with support of UNESCO and many organisations around the world. For students with an interest in areas of history, philosophy, psychology, language, religion and social sciences to name a few. Cultural treasures and significant historical documents are presented in a variety of formats to study and enjoy.

Sparknotes covers study guides for literature, poetry, history, film, philosophy, maths, health, physics, biology, chemistry and sociology. Includes brief analyses of characters, thematic breakdowns and plots. A useful starting point towards setting up your reading list if you are studying for the BA English. It’s a free mobile app available for iPhone and Android.

A final one to finish off our list is a modern RSS reader to keep you up to date with news and blogs on various multiple websites. Feedspot will free up time for essential research reading with a simple and fast way to keep up with all your favourite websites in one place. You can set up hourly or weekly digests delivered straight to your email inbox. This can also be used for all your subscriptions, so that a list of more than 10 newsletters can be combined in just one email. Feedspot is free and works in most modern browsers.