Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To celebrate our first birthday, we are handing the mic over to the audience so that anyone who would like to participate will get five minutes to show off their favourite online tool, application or website that makes science online fun. To complement the celebrations, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science where a range of scientists share details about what’s in their online science toolkits. Why not let us know how they compare to the tools that you use in the comment threads?
Dr Peter Etchells is a post-doctoral research assistant in the School of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, UK. His current research looks at the psychological, evolutionary, and biomechanical factors that underpin the perception of attractiveness, and attribution of personality traits in human walking movements. In his spare time, he writes the Nature Network blog ‘Counterbalanced’, and is currently taking part in ‘I’m a Scientist: In the Zone’, a Wellcome Trust public engagment competition.
Becoming a top quality science writer, as the old adage goes, takes minutes to pick up and years to master. I’m certainly no pro, but I’m always on the lookout for tips and tricks that might help. Over the past few year working on my PhD and now as a post-doc researcher, I’ve realised that a lot of the programs, apps and computer set-ups that I use in my day-to-day work are actually really useful for blogging too. At the end of the day, all you really need is a computer with a decent internet connection, but there’s a lot of quality-of-life stuff out there that definitely makes the whole process a little bit easier. Here are some of the things that I use; hopefully you can find some use for them too.
1. Writing. I used to get myself into a mess all the time during my PhD, with random Word documents and notes all over my computer. What I really needed was somewhere where I could jot all of my notes down, keep drafts of papers or thesis chapters, and more recently drafts of blog posts, and keep everything in a tidy fashion. I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, a word processor/project manager program that was originally designed for budding scriptwriters, but is now finding a growing fanbase in academia and beyond. Rather than writing everything in one long, linear document, Scrivener lets me break up my writing into little bits; in my project folder I can have a corkboard for upcoming blog ideas, a research folder for any papers that might be useful to read, and lots of tidy and ordered notepages. But my favourite option is the full-screen write mode, which throws a black background up behind the page that you’re working on, and gets rid of any distractions.
2. RSS feeds. My blog, Counterbalanced, is about reporting on scientific research that is picked up (and not always in the correct way) by the media. That means that I constantly need to keep abreast of what’s being reported by various news outlets – anything from the BBC to Wired. While there are tons of RSS readers out there, a while ago, I started using a program called Pulse. It takes RSS feeds from pretty much any website you want, and turns it into a visually pleasing mosaic. The nice thing about it is that it’s completely customisable, so I have one page for general news, one for science news, one for psychology-specific news, and then one for the journals that are most relevant to my research area. It means that I can get a really good idea of what’s being picked up in the news very quickly, and at the same time keep up to date with new papers being published in my field. When I find something that I think might be relevant for a blog, I’ll send the article to Pocket (formerly Read It Later) so that I can read it offline at a later point.
Screen shot from Pulse
3. Brainstorming ideas. I’m a bit of a tech geek, and bought an iPad when they first came out. Admittedly, I struggled for a long time to find a real use for it; between a smartphone and a laptop, I couldn’t quite figure out where it fit in any meaningful way. Then I found Papers and iAnnotate, and suddenly found a *very* good use for it! Papers is primarily an academic journal article repository for both Macs and iPad, with a particularly useful always-running drag-and-drop citation manager for the Mac. When you just want to read a paper though, the iPad version is great – you can highlight text, and add sticky notes to pages. The one downside is that you can’t scrawl handwritten notes all over the paper – that’s where iAnnotate comes in. It’s really easy to transfer PDFs between the two programs, and the freehand draw function in it can be handy sometimes. The downside to iAnnotate is that I’m not a massive fan of the way it organises your PDFs – Papers does a much better job on that side of things. Ideally, I’d like to see Papers with the handwritten notes function; time will tell if it happens.
Sometimes, though, I just want to throw some ideas down on paper. You never know when a good (well, usually terrible) idea for a blog article might come to you – in a restaurant, at the office, in the lab, 2am in the morning when you’re sleeping… For that reason, I keep a mini notebook and pen in my pocket or on my bedside table at all times. You really can’t beat good old-fashioned pen and paper for some things.
4. Computer setup. My PhD involved quite a lot of computer programming; I used Matlab to run and analyse my experiments. One thing I found absolutely crucial to being a productive coder was having an efficient computer setup, and it’s no different being a science writer. I probably can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to have two computer screens at your desk – one is usually my main writing window, and the other one is where all of my research sits, along with anything else (like my email client or twitter). You might be thinking that this doesn’t seem that much different from flicking between windows on the same screen, but if you haven’t already, give it a try – it makes working life, particularly as an academic or as a science writer, immeasurably better. It’s also worth mentioning that you can a program called Air Display to set up an iPad as a second monitor for your PC or Mac, which is handy when you’re out and about. But programs like Papers let you effectively use your tablet as a second screen without having to connect it to your main computer.
So, that about sums up my science-writing/academic toolkit. If anyone has any suggestions for other useful programs, I’d love to hear about them!
You can follow the online conversation on Twitter with the #ToolTales hashtag and you can read Mary Mangan’s Tool Tale here, Alan Cann’s here, Jerry Sheehan’s here, Boris Adryan’s here, Anthony Salvagno’s here, Daniel Burgarth and Matt Leifer’s here, Zen Faulkes’s here, Jenn Cable’s here , Mike Biocchi’s here, Susanna Speier’s here, Derek Hennen’s here, Musa Akbari’s here, Benedict Noel’s here, Chris Surridge’s here and Gerd Moe-Behrens’s here.