Written by

Steven Owens

Our guide to research tools aims to help equip you with the tools needed to best organize your research projects, whether it be for a tech purchase, a home project, a blog article, or even a school paper.

Apps for Plain-Text

The first step to getting your research workflow in check is to make sure you have software that you are comfortable with and works for your needs. There are countless options out there — here are a few we recommend.

For simple research notes with easy access on any platform, text-based notes are the way to go. If you haven’t already read it, Shawn Blanc goes into detail about his experiences with many of the plain text editors on both the Mac and iOS. For him, the winner was the Simplenote (iOS) and nvALT (Mac) combination.

Other iOS options include Notesy and Byword. For the Mac, nvALT and Justnotes are the best. Each of these apps works with Dropbox, so you can sync and backup your documents in real time.

When inspiration strikes you and you quickly need to jot down a note, Drafts is an excellent tool on iOS. When you open the app, it immediately starts a new note. From there, Drafts allows you to send the text to many apps including Simplenote, Byword, Evernote, Email, and more.

Apps for Multi-Media

If your research notes include images, PDFs, audio files, etc., you are going to want something which can handle more than just plain text notes.

  • Evernote: If you are looking for a cloud-based system look no further. Evernote does a great job storing all kinds of notes whether they are text, images, PDFs, audio files — if you can name it Evernote can probably store it. If you need searchable PDFs or take a lot of handwritten notes, Evernote does a great job with both text and handwriting-based OCR.

  • Skim: If your research includes a lot of PDF files, you many want to be able to markup the documents as you read them. While Preview handles basic highlighting and text boxes, Skim provides a more powerful annotation interface with extensive AppleScript support. We recommend Skim over PDFpenPro for research purposes because the former has some great note-taking AppleScripts already written.

  • DEVONthink: If you want powerful control over organizing, searching, and manipulating your research, DEVONthink should be your tool of choice. Like Evernote, DEVONthink handles any type of file you can throw at it, the key differences being DEVONthink’s artificial intelligence and powerful AppleScript support.

    On top of simply being a place to store and organize your notes, artificial intelligence automatically finds connections between files and can automatically extract keywords and file documents. Once your research is done, DEVONthink also provides a rich text environment for writing, keeping your research nearby.

  • Scrivener: With powerful outliner, research, storyboard, and writing modes, Scrivener allows you to gather your thoughts and research and take them to a finished product. While DEVONthink focuses on intelligently managing your research, Scrivener provides excellent organization tools as well as an extremely powerful text editor and export tool.

  • DropVox: When doing research, you may attend many seminars, meetings, etc., so audio recording may be important to you. DropVox is simple and powerful, allowing you to start a recording at a moment’s notice with two taps. After you finish the recording, the app saves the audio file directly to your Dropbox where you can then access that audio file from your Mac or Windows PC.

Ideas to Take Your Research to the Next Level

For more advanced researchers, the horizons are unlimited to what you can do with some of these amazing pieces of software. For example, you can use Markdown or LaTeX to format your text documents for easy conversion to any file format, or use AppleScript to automate converting Skim annotations to text notes.

Good, Old-Fashioned Pen and Paper

We would be remiss to not heartily recommend having a Field Notes notebook and a fine-tip gel ink pen in your pocket or bag at all times.

Additional tactile paraphernalia you’ll find in use around the Tools & Toys office include a few Levenger Circa notebooks, a Pilot Vanishing Point fountain pen, a Frictionless Planning Pad, and a large Moleskine Cahier notebook.

Each of these paper items are of the highest quality, durability, and usefulness. The combination you choose should depend on the size of your backpack, messenger bag, and or desk space.

Getting Started

Once you’ve settled upon your preferred research tools, it’s always a good idea to learn everything you can about your tools and stick to your workflow. If you have chosen to go the plain-text route, it is definitely worth your time to learn the basics of Markdown syntax.

For some of the more complex apps like DEVONthink or Scrivener, there are many great tutorials (e.g. DEVONthink, Scrivener) out there to help you learn the more advanced features.

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This article was written by Steven Owens. If he’s not in the lab, you might find Steve writing for his blog, scientifics. You can also find him on App.net and Twitter.