Software for students and academics
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Software for students and academics

PUBLISHED: 15 Dec 2016

Some alternative apps and tools to help you in your academic work.

  1. Notes and Info management
  2. Writing
    2.1 Online Tools
  3. Citations and Bibliography
  4. Outliners
  5. Other stuff

Getting something done efficiently and well starts with choosing the right tools for the job, and the most common aren’t necessarily always the most useful. This is a list of some recommended alternatives, they are free unless marked ‘$’.


Notes and Info management

In addition to the stuff that comes bundled with your operating system (MS OneNote, Mac Notes) you should probably be aware of these…

if you don’t use Evernote already, you should probably start now! Keep the stuff you find on the web, take clippings, organise and tag relevant information, find it when you need it.
nvAlt (notational velocity)
simply keep all those text snippets and notes in an easy to access place. Also use markdown for formatting and turn notes into webpages via Simplenote.
Similar functionality and feel to nvAlt for those who prefer to keep things entirely online.
new note and writing app on the Mac AppStore, looks smooth, nice illustrations of bears!
DevonThink ($)
info organiser, a bit like a file manager but with lots of extras, good for managing lots of project-related documents/images/data-files etc.


Starts with the standard WYSIWYG apps, then gets progressively geekier; higher up the list generally means, easier to learn, less control; lower down means, more learning required but also more control.

MSWord ($)
you know what Word is; but, just because everybody uses it, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best tool for what you want to do. Remember that there are alternative, sometimes better and easier ways to work.
OpenOffice (also LibreOffice, NeoOffice ($, Mac only) etc)
like MSWord but free! Uses the OpenDocument standard which has been adopted by the UK government, this would seem to indicate a high degree of reliability so don’t be perturbed by the fact it’s OpenSource free software. In general these do pretty much what MSOffice does. Can read and produce MSWord .docx files etc.
OmmWriter ($-if-you-want)
distraction-free writing! If you find all MSWord’s buttons are a temptation to distraction, try this, it’s just you and your writing on the screen. Very minimal! Ommmmmmmm…..
Scrivener ($)
writing software designed for writers rather than people who only want to write letters. Too many features to describe here, best take a look at the website.

Plain text tools

We are now heading into the realm of WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean); with this sort of software you are often creating your documents by separating out the ‘logic’ (i.e. the role or function of a piece of text ) from what a piece of text looks like. For instance, a ‘level one header’ always indicates that the bit of text that it precedes is somehow ‘higher up’ in the document structure than the text preceded by a ‘level two header’, but the headers themselves may need to look very different depending on which academic style you are using in your document. This type of software allows/requires you to manage these things separately; this means that you can ensure document styling is entirely consistent.

Multimarkdown Composer (markdown)
probably the most developed of the many, many markdown editors available (maybe Ulysses is up there too). As you write you add special symbols to your different bits of text to indicate their role, e.g. level one headers are marked by preceding #. level two headers by ##, etc. Markdown (and ‘multimarkdown’ which adds extra goodies) is very straightforward to learn and allows the writer to create many types of document (HTML webpages, MSWord, OpenDocument, PDF etc) all from one source.
Atom (plain text editor)
a general purpose plain text editor, built for programmers really but as it’s ‘hackable’ it can be adapted to just about any purpose. There are extensions(‘packages’) which allow/help you to write and preview various types of markdown… and to do just about anything else might want to with plain text!
Aquamacs (Emacs, Vim etc)
Aquamacs is a Mac-friendly version of the venerable Emacs, which normally runs inside a terminal. In general terms it’s the same as Atom above, a text editor, but it’s much older, better established and therefore with even more possibilities - you can manage your to-do list, maintain a calendar and read your mail in Emacs, if you want.
Texts (Trial period, then $)
looks more like a ‘normal’ WYSIWYG-style editor but actually uses a clever piece of software called Pandoc to create different types of documents from your text (which is actually markdown formatted by the app to not look like it). If you set it up properly it will do all the generation and formatting of your citations and bibliography for you. It will There is a 30-day trial version available, then it costs $19 to buy a licence.

Online Tools

an alternative way of viewing a structured document. It’s easiest to just look at how it works on the website. Probably not for everyone but if you like it and it helps you organise your thinking/writing, why not?!
Another more conventional online writing tool that can use either markdown or (the very wonderful but rather complex) LaTeX.

A note about LaTeX

LaTeX is also a form of ‘mark-up’ like the HTML used to make web-pages. It is used more in the ‘hard’ sciences and mathematics but there are good reasons to think about using it for social science writing too; citations and bibliographies can be generated and formatted automatically, internal references are generated and managed automatically, headers are numbered and formatted appropriately, and more importantly, in general you don’t have to think about document formatting at all and can concentrate on your content. For more information about getting started have a look at these guides:

Be aware, the learning curve is steep but the results can be worth the effort.

If you want to try LaTeX without all the messing about installing various (quite large) bits of software there are online services you can use to see if you like how it works.


Citations and Bibliography

Correctly citing your sources and providing references is a fundamental academic skill, the software mentioned here will help you get it right.

a bibliographic information manager to keep a track of all that reading you’re doing and, more importantly to make it easier to insert correct citations and a reference list in your papers and essays. To get the most out of Zotero you will need to install 3 different components; the Zotero desktop app, the browser plug-in, and the word-processor software add-ons that link Zotero to MSWord/OpenOffice. Once you’ve got all these installed and linked together then you can capture bibliographic info from the web (e.g. from publisher websites or Google Scholar search results), manage the info in the desktop app, and add it (all correctly formatted in a style of your choice) to your essay/paper.
I just noticed this so am adding it to the list (10/01/17). Similar functionality to Zotero and friends, online and desktop versions for all OSs (desktop and mobile). Design is very simple and clean, there’s a browser add-on to suck up bibliographic info from webpages, and word-processor plug-ins to help with your writing. It’s developed by people from the Univ. of Oxford and seems to be a worthy contender for your attention. It also has a ‘social’ aspect in that it includes collaboration and communication tools. I just wish they’d change the name…
like Zotero but does a bit more file management for you, if you like that sort of thing. Similar functionality to Zotero, slicker design.
Papers ($)
Similar to the above but for people who like to spend money on things they can get for free…
online service to store your bibliographic data.
as above but with more of sharing/social media feel.

For the geekier…

a bibliography manager that uses the bibtex format, aimed primarily at integration with LaTeX writing tools but adaptable to other apps, I use it for writing in markdown.
as above but integrates a bit better with other apps, there’s a Firefox plug-in (JabFox) which helps grab bibliographic info from webpages. NB. this seems to require the Zotero plug-in to be installed too.


if you like to plan your writing from the structure then an outliner might be a good way to get started. Checkvist allows you to make outlines - hierarchical lists - to which you can add text notes, deadlines, links etc. Then, if you like, you can export these and use them as a heading structure for a word-processor document. Of course, you can also just use it as a normal to-do list.
The Outliner of Giants
despite it’s silly name, this is a pretty good app. It’s available online and as a ‘Chrome App’(I think…). There are free and paid versions, it’s very versatile and you can include, by using markdown, images, quotes etc in your outlines. Afaik, you can also email material into the nodes on your outline, if that’s your bag!

Other stuff

PDF Shrinkers
if you need to send or share PDFs it’s often a good idea to try to compress them first, as they can get very large very quickly. Online compression services can often reduce the size of a PDF by 80-90%.
  • Smallpdf
  • and lots of other similar services.
Aeon Timeline ($)
A timeline editor that, as well as being a fantastic bit of software, has the additional bonus that it integrates with Scrivener (see above), so especially useful if you are writing history, or anything with a time-based sequence of events as a framework. Unfortunately, costs $50 but a 15% academic discount is available.
DevonAgent ($)
from the same company as DevonThink (see above), a super-sophisticated tool for performing customised web-searches and storing the results.
super-adaptable online database and visualisation site; maps, graphs, all kinds of charts. Data import (e.g. from Excel etc) can be tricky but the results are great.

Last Updated: 10 Jan 2017

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