The Wired Scholar: Five Free Tools You May Not Know About

The Wired Scholar: Five Free Tools You May Not Know About

The Wired Scholar: Five Free Tools You May Not Know About
Danny Zacharias

The Internet has radically changed how information is stored, researched, and published. Work that was once done in a file catalog and in the midst of towering book shelves can now be done with a few keystrokes on a computer. The ability not only to find information, but to store your own information for the benefit of others makes the Internet an exciting tool for academic research. At the same time, the Internet has also become a resource for free quality resources. The purpose of this article is to introduce Forum readers to five free online tools that can serve to enhance research and productivity.

Google Books
Google Books, which has been discussed previously on The SBL Forum, continues its aggressive effort to digitize books and make them available for public searching. A Google executive has stated that they aim to make every book ever published full-text searchable within ten years. This developing resource has already made itself indispensable, and its value will only increase. In addition to searching inside books, Google Books, along with (also mentioned on The SBL Forum), now makes freely available texts that are in the public domain. Most of J. P. Migne's Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina are now available online for viewing (and downloadable as PDF's), the first twenty-eight volumes of Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft are available, as well as many other treasures from the likes of Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Gunkel, Julius Wellhausen, and C. H. Dodd, to name but a few.

Mention should also be made of Microsoft's new Live Book Search. Microsoft's book search is still very new and does not have near the number of resources as Google Books. Time will tell if Microsoft's book search can carve out a niche for itself in the market.

I currently know of two "under construction" web pages dedicated to pointing out biblical studies works that are freely available, mostly from Google Books. The first is maintained by Mischa Hooker from the University of Memphis. The links to J. P. Migne's collection are found on this first list. The second is by Bob Buller, with some collaborative efforts on my part as well. We welcome other collaborators who wish to help us maintain this list. You will find the links to the ZAW collection on this second list. For the sake of thoroughness, the excellent and well-known ETANA and ABZU ought also to be mentioned: ETANA makes available a large number of quality texts related to ancient Near Eastern Studies, and ABZU catalogs over four hundred freely available online books, articles, and websites related to the ancient Near East.

One last item I wish to mention is something for which I have found Google Books particularly useful. Because Google Books is moving backward in time in its aggressive indexing of titles, while at the same time staying current with new titles as they appear, I have found the Google Book search helpful for researching how authors view other written works — i.e., the "reception history" of articles and books. With Google Books, I am able to examine authors' views on certain articles or books with which I am working. For FORUM readers who have published articles or books, doing a Google Book search for an article title can offer a glimpse of how research has been received.

Google Scholar
Google Scholar is a heavily used search tool that indexes the vast majority of periodicals that are available online. Google Scholar also indexes the articles themselves, if they are available online, although a user needs to have access through a library or personal subscription to read or download them. The obvious advantage of Google Scholar over against something like ATLA is that it is free and takes the user immediately to the access point for the article. The limitation, again comparing it to ATLA, is that there are a number of periodicals that ATLA has indexed but have little or no online presence, so they are absent from Google Scholar.

Google Scholar provides some useful features that make it stand out: (1) It holds a user's preferences. A user can specify the languages to which the searches can be confined; Google Scholar can also show the user if an article or book is available at a nearby library. (2) A user can set Google Scholar to show a link to export the citation of articles. This is very handy for users who use bibliographic management software. (3) Google Scholar simultaneously searches Google Books. This type of single search for both articles and books is unmatched. (4) Google Scholar has an advanced search, which can help you search more precisely. One can search by multiple criteria (author, date, title) and can also limit which subject areas results return from (i.e., humanities, medicine, or business). (5) Google Scholar can show the user similar articles, which can point out hitherto unknown essays. (6) Finally, Google Scholar tracks citations from within articles and books, which may be one of its strongest features. If Google Scholar is aware of any other books or articles that have cited one of the user's search results, Google Scholar will indicate it and provide a link that lists the cross references. However, one of the main drawbacks to Google Scholar is also highlighted in this cross-referencing feature: Google Scholar also indexes web content from universities. Sometimes search results and especially citation links are not originating from articles or books. As an example, Google Scholar's information on Reginald Fuller's book, The Use of the Bible in Preaching, notes that it is cited by eleven other works. However, when examining these eleven citations, almost all of them are actually course syllabuses listing it as required or recommended reading — and none of the cross-references are from books or refereed journals.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft has recently launched a competitor to Google Scholar, the Academic Live Search. The Academic Live Search is still early in its beta phase, but it is a very fine tool. Academic Live Search's two-paned interface is better than Google Scholar and also offers more exporting options for the user. Microsoft has created a closer connection with publishers so that publishers get to choose what information is actually shown in the search. The presentation of the search results is also superior to that of Google Scholar. The user can obtain much of the information for an article (abstract if available, publication details, DOI) without leaving the search results page. However, the Academic Live Search does not have a cross-referencing system nor does it index Google Books or even its own Book Search, and attempting an advanced search with multiple criteria is more difficult than with Google Scholar.

Google Docs
Supported Browsers: Firefox and Internet Explorer
Google Docs, which is still in its beta phase, is a fully functional online word processor and spreadsheet program. Google Docs is free. Users have an unlimited amount of space for storing documents, though documents are currently restricted to 500kb in size. Google Docs can import .doc, .rtf, .html, .txt, and .odt (Open Office) documents. Once imported, these documents can be edited online. Files can be exported from Google Docs to the supported import formats, as well as to .pdf. Documents can also be emailed. Every Google Docs account receives a unique email address for easy importing. All the user needs to do is attach a document to an email and send it to the Google Docs email address, and the document will be imported. Google Docs users can also enable right-to-left text in the Google Docs settings to support Hebrew, Aramaic, and other right-to-left unicode scripts. Unicode Hebrew can be imported and inputted within Google Docs. The only limitation is the small number of fonts available in Google Docs, which can sometimes make for imperfect presentation of Hebrew, particularly vowel pointing. But any potential pointing problems are solved when a document is exported and a more suitable unicode font is chosen for the Hebrew characters in a word processor. If a user imports non-unicode Greek or Hebrew into Google Docs, it will not display properly, but will revert to roman.

Google Docs provides users with a good platform for publishing their work online or collaborating with others. Choosing to publish a document assigns the document a unique URL, which the user can then share with others. To provide readers with an example, this article was entirely composed in Google Docs, and the published version can also be viewed here. If a scholar wishes to distribute research online or if a teacher wishes to publish course material that can be accessed online, then Google Docs may be a suitable choice. For collaboration, users can invite others in two ways: (1) as collaborators who can edit the document, or (2) as viewers who can view the document and save a copy, but cannot edit it. The revision history is tracked by Google Docs, so the user can choose to revert back to any previous version if need be. If there are a number of collaborators and the author(s) wishes to monitor changes made to the document closely, Google Docs can also generate an RSS feed, which notes the date, time, and author of the changes, as well as showing a snippet of what has been changed. As an example, one can view the RSS feed of changes made to this article through the past few weeks by viewing this feed in an RSS reader.

Google Docs can be effective for educators as well. As the world becomes increasingly paperless, Google Docs can provide a way for teachers to read, comment on, and correct student papers. Students could email their term papers to their teachers' unique Google Docs email address, the teacher could then read and comment on the paper, and the result — with inserted comments, highlights, and corrections — could be emailed back to the student. Google Docs may also provide an ideal platform for MA or PhD students who need to have their work regularly read and critiqued by professors or external readers who are geographically distant. Google Docs is a centralized place where reading, comments, and revising can be done, without the mess of emailing documents back and forth between multiple people.

Finally, this brief overview of Google Docs applies also to a number of other online word processors. The main alternatives are Zoho, ThinkFree Office, and Ajax 13. I urge Forum readers to take the time to see if one may be right for them (see a comparative review here). These three free alternatives are full online office application suites (e.g., word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software). Google also offers a package suite for small businesses and schools that is comparable to these alternatives, but Google has neither presentation software nor an offline alternative like Zoho or ThinkFree. For students who have consistent and reliable Internet access, these free web applications may be an excellent free alternative to an otherwise costly software purchase.

Google Notebook
Supported Browsers: Firefox and Internet Explorer
Google Notebook is a free application that allows users to collect online content into one easily accessible place. After installing the plugin for Firefox or Internet Explorer, the user will see an access link to Google notebook in the lower left part of the browser. With a single click, users can now store information into their notebook. The collection process is very simple: highlight a portion of text in the web browser, right-click the highlighted portion, and choose the option to "note" the information in Google Notebook. The selection of text, called a clipping, is now in the user's Google Notebook. Clicking on the link to the Google Notebook in the lower half of one's browser will open a mini-window and show the item(s) most recently saved. From there, users can make a quick comment about the clipping in the comments section, if they so choose. Google Notebook attaches the reference (the URL) of the clipping, so users are aware of the source of the information. Unfortunately, Google Notebook does not yet put a timestamp on the clipping so a user can know when the information was copied. Users can also type their own notes directly into Google Notebook.

A user's Google Notebook is organized on its own dedicated web page. In the mini-notebook tool, clicking on the title of the notebook will open the notebook web page. From the dedicated web page, users can create as many user-named notebook folders as they wish. Clippings can easily be moved to different notebook folders by drag-and-drop. In the user's Google Notebook web page, there are editing features to manipulate the data of notes. These features include changing font color, font type, italics, and bold face, and even adding hyperlinks. A note can be deleted at any time by dragging it to the trash. Clippings in Google Notebook can also be exported to Google Docs for further editing. Unfortunately, there is currently no other way to export information. All notes can be printed from the notebook homepage as well. Google has not indicated that there is any storage size restriction, so users can conceivably have large quantities of information stored in their Google Notebook. As is expected of a Google product, all of the information stored in a users notebook(s) is searchable.

In this Internet age, the usefulness of Google Notebook is obvious. Users never have to leave their web browser to make a copy of information found on the Internet or even to jot down a note or reminder quickly. For projects for which research is done largely online, the ability to store online information quickly for later processing and organization can be of great benefit.

Google Notebook, like Google Docs, can also serve as a convenient collaboration, publishing, and perhaps even teaching tool. Users can invite other people to collaborate, enabling others to add and edit clippings in their notebook folders. For sharing web research with a colleague (perhaps for a joint publishing project) Google Notebook may be just the right tool. Users can also publish individual notebook folders online for anyone to view. To put this into practice, I used Google Notebook for researching the subjects of this article — my notebooks can be viewed here. Although Google Notebook can be used only with Firefox and Internet Explorer, published notebooks are viewable on any web browser. As a teaching tool, Google Notebook may be used to manage an individual course by providing a central place for required readings, course work, class syllabus, class notes, and so on.

Finally, two similar free online applications, Clip Marks and Zoho Planner, should be mentioned, although they lack collaboration ability. For those who prefer a regular software application but like the idea of an organizational database, there are a number of applications for information management with more powerful features than Google Notebook. Ultra Recall, OneNote, and EverNote are available for PC users, while Mac users have DEVONthink, Journler, SOHO Notes, and a large number of others to choose from. These applications are feature-rich tools that can aid greatly in the management and use of large amounts of data — I myself benefit greatly from the use of DEVONthink Pro. However, unlike Google Notebook, none of these is free and none offers the possibility of collaboration.

LibraryThing has quickly become a popular tool on the Internet for cataloging one's books. A user can rate his books, write a review of them, and tag them with keywords according to content. It is free with a limit of two hundred books, but users can catalog an unlimited number of books with LibraryThing for a small fee. Importing books is as simple as searching for a title, but users can also import a large list of books by uploading a plain text, Excel, or EndNote file. Aside from the sheer amusement that this tool can bring for bibliophiles, LibraryThing is also described as the social network for the intelligent, for several reasons: (1) LibraryThing lets one know if other users have the same or similar collections; (2) one can join discussions surrounding books; (3) one can get a sense of what others think about certain works; and (4) it can also help users find books that had previously been unknown — both by browsing other users' collections and via LibraryThing's recommendations. If a user maintains a website, LibraryThing also comes with a number of tools that can be used to display cataloged books (see an example here). LibraryThing also connects to a service called Ottobib, which can generate a book's information in APA, MLA, or Turabian format. A user's collection can be exported to disk in an excel-supported document.