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Essential Free Tools for Research

by Jack Simpson

I commenced my PhD in bioinformatics at the Australian National University about a month ago and thought I’d share some of the tools I’ve found absolutely essential. All of these tools are free to use (some do have paid plans, however at this point I haven’t had the need to sign up for them).

  1. Evernote + Evernote Web Clipper: Once I started to really get into using this tool, I couldn’t understand how I’d lived without it before. Now I can clip snippets from web pages for later reference, write notes from a seminar I attended or upload a Python script and have this all in one easily searchable (and tag-able) location. There’s also a plethora of phone/tablet apps which work really well.
  2. Wunderlist: While I tried to use Evernote for keeping to-do lists, I found that this simple yet powerful program (with support for PC, Mac, phones and tablets) worked extremely well for keeping track of my tasks.
  3. Dropbox: I do all my work within the Dropbox folder on my computer. This way, when I move between computers everything is synced and backed-up. While I have tried Google Drive before, the lack of support for Linux as well as issues with syncing have led me back to using Dropbox.
  4. Zotero: Zotero is a referencing manager with a browser plug-in which is fantastic at importing the bibliographic details and pdf of the paper from the web. It can also sync between computers (although you only get 300 mb of free sync space). While I have used the alternative referencing manager Mendeley before (which has 2gb free sync space and a brilliant program which enables you to annotate your pdfs), the Mendeley web import tool was so bad at importing the bibliographic details and pdfs of papers that I went over to Zotero.
  5. VirtualBox: If you find yourself having to use a lot of Linux-only tools (or you like the fact that you can install entire programs with multiple dependencies merely with the command ‘sudo apt-get’) but don’t really want to set up anything permanent , then VirtualBox could be the way to go. Its a free program that allows you to run a whole operating system on your computer within a window just like any other program.
  6. Coursera/EdX/Udacity: These websites offer free courses from great unis in everything from computer science to genomics.
  7. Stack Overflow/Biostars: Great websites for asking questions relating to programming or bioinformatics. If you can’t find anything after searching Google, then this is the place to post your question.
  8. Twitter: Although this can be a bit of a time-waster, I find that by following other researchers in my field and research organisations I can hear about new papers or tutorials.
  9. Google Plus: G+ may not be as popular as Facebook, but I find most of my programming friends tend to be quite active on it and if you join one of the programming communities it can be a great place to learn new things or ask questions.
  10. Google Scholar Alerts: Sign up to receive emails whenever the keywords you select are published in a paper.

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