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Digital Research Tools


March 24, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell

I have been using Zotero, NVivo, PDF notes, and Voxscribe CC. My goals were to achieve organization of my materials, improved note-taking and studying reading materials, and efficiently transcribe audio and video materials.

The tool I used most was PDF notes. It is an application I have started using on my iPad to read and annotate documents. I have always been attached to physical papers and books and prefer to read and annotate a hard copy of a document whenever possible. However, with multiple projects of reasonable size going at the same time, it’s takes a lot of time, space, and money to print out all the articles I want to use for research. I’ve tried some e-readers in the past and did not have much luck, but I will use PDF notes for any reading I can get electronically from now on. It is easy to load and navigate. I can adjust the brightness so staring at the screen for hours doesn’t ware on me. I really appreciate the organizational tools available in this application, too. I can create different categories and sort my documents so I’m not searching through one endless list of everything from every class. This makes it very user friendly. Beyond organization, the most useful part of the application is the annotation tools. You can highlight, write on the page, or type notes. This is what I disliked about reading on my computer before- the lack of these options. It was strange for me to type notes on the computer, I like to circle things and write in the margins, and PDF notes allows me to do this. I can zoom in and out to make the writing space the right size, change the color and size of the ‘pen’ and use a stylus or my finger to write what I want. This is possibly the most convenient digital tool for grad school and reading in general.

I’ve done a lot of video interviews for a major project I’m working on. I want to transcribe my footage, but I have over 12 hours total and doing that task by myself with a video player and a word document is quite daunting. Searching through the website, I was hoping to find a tool for transcription that would help make the process more efficient. Voice recognition software for fully digital transcription is expensive, but I found a piece of software that was a free download that seemed to work. It was created to make captions for shorter clips, but I had hopes it would work for my longer pieces as well. I spent the first few weeks playing with the tutorials and getting to know the interface. It seemed alright- a few edits always had to be made, but it was much quicker than anything I’d done myself before. However, when I finally started to try and work with my own, longer files, the system didn’t quite work for me. I wouldn’t load well, but more frustrating- I realized that transcription actually used ‘voxscribe minutes’ as you transcribed and you had to buy those minutes. I will not be using this software in the future- if I’m going to pay for transcription, I don’t want short, closed caption snipets that are only saved to .xml or .srt. I would like to have a full transcript of the entire audio in one piece. The only benefit to this program was that it lined the transcript up with the audio throughout the entire clip, but still not worth the money or effort for the kind of project I’m doing.

Zotero is a great reference tool. It is easy to use and brings together all your bibliographic information efficiently and effectively. Having a personal database of references sorted into projects and folders is very useful as a student with multiple projects going on at once. I enjoyed using Zotero, and will likely continue to use it in the future. It is very useful for creating bibliographies and keeping track of references you may want to refer back to later, however I was honestly left feeling it could do more. It could link to the actual website or file in the reference if you gave it the information- the add-on button for chrome made a great addition to the tool belt- but I wished it had at least similar functionality to PDF notes for annotation or at least memos. It could be argued that the notes and tags sections could be used to do this, but it didn’t quite work for me because the notes weren’t attached to the actual document but only the title/reference to it.

NVivo turned out to be the most useful tool I used and fulfilled everything I wanted out of a research tool. I heard about it from an Honors adviser as an undergrad, but never actually used it until now. I wish I had found this tool long ago. It is an amazing way to organize and analyze data and sources of all kinds. You can keep track of all your sources, but unlike Zotero, you can actually view your materials inside the program. Videos, audio files, pictures, and documents can all be accessed and ‘coded’ within NVivo. I was able to add themes and notes and transcription right alongside the sources. Your database of sources within your NVivo project is searchable so you can directly compare different sources without having multiple windows open and going back and forth. My only frustration with the software was that the video file I imported would not support the slow-down function for easier transcription, but I was able to use it with an audio only file- a reasonable work around for me. I was surprised and very pleased with how much I could do in NVivo. I expected it to be like an amped up Zotero, but it is so much more. It works with other software for importing data including Zotero and Endnote and also has a feature called NCapture that is similar to the Chrome plug in for zotero. NVivo also works with importing survey data from Survey Monkey and social media data from Twitter and others- it can automatically categorize and search tweets by hashtag or user for instance or survey information by question. It’s a little sad that it’s not free software, but I’m glad to have access to it through the university.


  1. Adina Langer says:


    I am particularly intrigued by NVivo. Do you use it on your personal computer, or only on GSU machines? How does it integrate with the other tools that you use? Can you save annotated PDFs in it, and or in Zotero?

  2. Julie says:

    Alexandra, I noticed that although many of the devices on dirt directory are free, there are several that do charge a subscription fee. My guess is that they are probably not that expensive, but it certainly made me think about the cost of convenience. It’s clear that in your case Voxscribe CC was not worth the price. And while I was exploring, I felt like there were many paid programs which seemed intriguing or potentially useful, but because of the price, I could not see myself using them in the long-run.

  3. kdaly3 says:

    I agree with you on the accessibility of PDF notes. I’ve always been a hard-core supporter of physical books, but I’m with you on the matter of expense outweighing what I usually am used to (which is why PDF notes is so nice). I have also been looking for a way to easily transcribe videos, but all I have been able to use is the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer; except you have to do all the transcription yourself – it just makes it searchable so that the public does not have to look through ten or twenty videos to find what they’re looking for. I’ve always been curious as to why transcription software is so buggy, but I assume it’s because not everyone’s voice or language is the same.

  4. jeldredge1 says:

    I also tried Voxcribe CC and I had just an hours worth to transcribe which is what they give you for free, but the download seemed massive, and I didn’t want to bog down my laptop, so I didn’t actually end up using it. NVivo might be more my style rather than Zotero, since I am more visually oriented. Can any student download it? I LOVE my PDF app that I use on my iPad! It’s been the best tool for me during grad school. I use GoodNotes, and love the ease of downloading, editing and annotating my PDF’s. No more carrying around a huge binder of printed articles! I create notebooks for each class and subject, and when the app gets too crowded, I just transfer the folders over to my DropBox.

  5. Susan Prillaman says:

    Based on your description, I am very interested in NVivo since qualitative analysis is a large part of the research I perform in my current “day” job. The program is costly: a full license for two devices for educational purposes is $670 (list price $2,345). For a commercial license it’s even pricier since a lower discount off the list price is offered. Commercial customers pay $1,875. Since it’s available through GSU I can use it for the next several months and maybe build a business case for acquiring it at work.

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