Collaborative academic research can be an enriching and fruitful experience. Teaming up with colleagues your field can help you see issues from new and interesting perspectives and help in providing in-depth answers to difficult questions. But collaborative efforts come with their own set of questions like, “What was that article my colleague was talking about last week?” or “A few weeks ago you were saying something interesting about the methods section. What was that again?” Finding the answers to these sorts of questions may send one on a journey of scrolling through past emails (“Which email was that mentioned in again?”).
Not only are these efforts annoying and time-consuming, but disorganization can also jeopardize the very study itself! Good organization, transparent methods, instruments, and discussion are integral to scientific research. Luckily, these sorts of problems can be solved easily by using a few pieces of key technology. They take only a few minutes to set up but will save you and your team hours in the long run.
Let’s start by organizing the very conversation itself by using Discord, a free instant messaging and voice chatting social media platform.
What makes platforms like Discord so powerful is that you can create different message threads for different topics. For example, most scientific articles follow the IMRaD structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion), so why not structure your Discord channels in this way? This one feature alone makes it worth using Discord. Look at those channels!
As you can tell from the above screenshot, we are doing a mixed-methods study that has a lot of different layers. We don’t want to be talking about our quantitative survey instrument and our qualitative thematic coding in the same email thread. That would be awful. So instead, we just click on a channel to find information or message on that topic. More than one study going at a time? Just make more Discord server (group) and switch between them using the dropdown menu in the top left. Honestly, this sort of organization is incredible.
Discord is about building communities of people who share the same interest. Find a server about one of your research interests or make your own. Some journals, like Ludic Language Pedagogy, even have their own Discord server where you can talk about the sort of ideas the journal covers, makes contacts, and get help with your research.
Slack – Slack is a similar platform which focuses on business. Discord focuses on the gaming community, but they are essentially the same thing.
Choose either of these great offerings and you will be happy you did.
Zotero is a free reference management software.
Gone are the days of finishing a paper only to have to grab your most recent copy of the MLA or APA handbook and painstakingly make the bibliographic section. It is now done with the click of a mouse. That’s right, simply click “add/edit bibliography” in your Zotero extension and you are done. It auto populates a bibliography based on your citations and your chosen citation style. Done!
Use the extension to cite as you go. When you make your first citation in a paper, it will ask you which style you are using. After that, just click “add/edit citation” and select your source.
You may be thinking, “But the real annoying part is putting all of the info into the refence software in the first place,” but it’s not true! Databases, including Web of Science and SCOPUS have features that allow you to export article meta-data directly into your reference software!
You can also create a shared library with your collaborates. That way all of your sources are in the same spot, everyone has access to them, and it’s easy to work on the same Google Doc together.
I prefer Zotero to its competitors because of how easily it integrates with Google Docs, and because it’s free, I can recommend it to my students. If I’m using the same software as them, I can easily answer their questions about it (I require the students in my Advanced Academic Writing class to use Zotero).
EndNote – Made by Clarivate, the same analytics company that runs the Web of Science database. This is the top-end of reference software. You can purchase it at their website, or you may have access to it through your institution.
Mendeley – Mendeley is another great, free alternative.
You really can’t go wrong with any of these choices. Pick the one that suits you the best and set aside your cumbersome citation manuals.
I am biased. I have been Google everything since 2006. And, much like with other companies, the more of their products you use, the better each one becomes.
Google Drive is Google’s cloud computing offering. In addition to storage, it includes their version of many of the products offered in Microsoft Office.
Why Google Drive?
Their word processor, Google Docs, is a much needed, paired down version of Microsoft Word. It has considerably less features, and yet, somehow, it has all of the features you want. Less features make it easier to find what you’re looking for, and it’s “suggestion” mode is quickly catching up with Word’s “track changes” feature. Word is still king when it comes to graphs and charts though. But if you prefer using Google Docs, simply export the chart and graphs you make in Word and upload them to your Google Doc.
It is easy to share document privileges with others. Simply click on the blue “Share” button in the top right corner and change access from “restricted” to “Anyone with the link can” be a “Viewer,” “Commentor,” or “Editor.” Add people or groups by either adding their emails in the top box or by copying the link and sharing it with them (you can also share folders).The “Share” feature makes it easy to share templates with students and collaborators.
And don’t forget that Zotero has an great extension for Google Docs.
Another product that helps make collaboration easy is Google sheets. This is their version of Microsoft Excel. Create great literature review matrices and share with collaborates the same way you do with Docs.
I’m going to sneak in one more Google recommendation.
Co-presenting at a conference? Use Google Slides to create, share, and present. It’s not as nice as PowerPoint, and is fairly limited in terms of themes, graphs and charts, but it is a clean and simple presentation tool.
If you’re interested in learning more about using Google Drive in you classes, you can read my review of Google Workspace for Education in the TESOL Journal.
Also keep in mind that Google is not an education company and nothing is truly free. You pay for their products by letting them mine your data and sell it. The privacy setting are different when using Google’s Workspace for Education though, with more student protections in place.
Google Drive is simple, elegant, incredibly user friendly, and the “share” feature makes collaboration easy.
Microsoft Office – The original, high-powered suite of office tools.
Libreoffice – Apache’s open-source alternative to proprietary office suites.
These are my top picks for tech that will help your collaborative academic research go smoothly. You can get started with my recommendations or choose from one of the great alternatives. Either way, I hope your research goes well.
Paul T. Johnson