Conquer Your Next Research Project The Easy Way With These Tools

Aaron Couch 01-12-2012

research toolsWhether you’re in school or you have a job, you likely have or will have to research at one point or another. And if you’re like most people, you will have to do it several times. But research is a daunting task. It seems like we put it off and put it off until the very last minute when we have to get everything done now. That’s obviously not the way to do it. Now there are a three of reasons why this might occur:

  1. We aren’t too enthralled about the topic.
  2. We don’t have the proper tools and/or resources.
  3. We just simply procrastinate out of habit.

Now I can’t help you too much with numbers one and three, they are obstacles you’ll have to overcome within yourself. However, I can help you with number two, which will most likely make one and three easier to conquer, not having to worry about number two. Personally, I’ve battled all of these, and sometimes all three at once.  I’ve never been good about not procrastinating, but one thing I have found that helps me is to first create a plan of action.

Create A Plan Of Action

research tools

I recently read a fantastic article on the iDoneThis blog and in it it was mentioned why the “just start/just do it” theory doesn’t really work.

Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:

“It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.”

It’s quite easy to say “Just start!” or “Just do it!” …Especially when it’s someone else we’re talking to and not ourselves. But where do you start? In my opinion, it starts with a  plan. And that plan starts with an outline. This is the first step of getting it all together. One of the hardest parts is getting started. Sometimes we think that what we need to do is just start researching, but with no to very little direction, it can take much longer, lead to more distractions and be frustrating. Having an idea of what you want to cover allows you to fine tune what you plan to research and ensures you stay on task better. In fact, before writing this article, I made a quick outline in Evernote. It’s likely subject to change even as I write this article, but it’s a starting point.

internet research tools

However, the outline is only a part of your plan of action and should be written as so. In a way, you want to create an outline about what all you want to do and in that outline include that you are to make an outline of what you want to research. You can choose to make the outline of what your project will consist of before or after your “Plan of Action” outline.

So what else should be included? Well, this somewhat depends on you and your circumstances. Below are some things I feel are also necessary in your plan of action:

  • Timeframes for all the sections of your project (e.g. research, writing deadlines)
  • Day-to-day goals for accomplishing the tasks and sections
  • If Applicable, specific tools or techniques you plan to use
  • A list of everything you will need.

Tools For Gathering All The Information

internet research tools

There are lots of research tools and they can’t practically all be covered in a single article. This is somewhat because there are several variables, from the individual person to the topic to the available resources at that time. That said, there are some essentials that everyone should use no matter the what the research project is. Many of these have helped me and continue to help me, as every article I (and likely most writers here at MakeUseOf) write deals with research to some degree.

  • Evernote, Springpad or OneNote
  • Diigo
  • Zotero
  • Xmarks
  • Digital notepads
  • CleverKeys

Evernote, Springpad or OneNote – Gather all your research in one place

I group these all together because we all have different preferences and needs. While I might prefer Evernote because of price, features and usefulness, you might prefer Springpad, OneNote or even another similar program, such as SimpleNote Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps Simplenote and its ecosystem of apps for every platform toss all the superfluous features found in competing note-taking programs and focus on the ones that matter. All Simplenote apps sync effortlessly, with minimal interfaces that... Read More . What you need is a program to compile all your information from web articles, to photos from pages out of a book or magazine, to thoughts, and notes that you want to ensure you cover in your article.

Perhaps you’ve already got used to using one of these programs and although it’s not a bad idea to keep an open mind, if you’ve already created a system, you might be less productive and efficient if you change it. But whether you have used one or more of the above programs or not, below are some links that can help you in your decision making.

Diigo – Webpage bookmarking and annotating tool

Diigo is another great researching tool for bookmarking and annotating saved webpages, and it is certainly nothing new to the web. Bakari Chavau covered it back in 2010 Use Diigo To Help Write Your Next College Essay or Term Paper Read More and it still remains a solid tool. One thing that sets Diigo apart is its variation and amount of tools that it provides to users. From bookmarklets to browser plugins and web apps to mobile and desktop apps, it has you covered. Diigo isn’t just one tool , but an entire company with several tools – all which are free.

Probably the most useful tool, though, is the Web Highlighter which bookmarks, highlights, shares and creates sticky notes on the webpage. These changes are saved with the tool so that whenever you return to that webpage, those “changes” are still there.

Zotero – Collect, cite, organize, sync and share your information

Zotero is another tool which we’ve covered on MUO and it has been a very well-known research tool for Firefox users for quite some time. But what you might not know is that it now works as a standalone version Organize Your Research With The New Standalone Zotero One of Zotero’s biggest cons is that it works only within Firefox. This means you have to be running Firefox and use it to save the articles you find. As long as I was using... Read More for Windows, Mac and Linux, as well as a bookmarklet, browser extension for Safari and Chrome. It also provides integration with Microsoft Word and Libre Office (included with the browser extensions, but must be downloaded separately for the standalone versions), as well as offering third-party plugins. All of these can be found and downloaded from the Zotero download page.

In a way, you could think of Zotero as your all-in-one research tool. You can use it to collect your information, cite it, organize it, sync it Two Easy Ways To Synchronize Zotero Data Read More , collaborate, and share it.

Xmarks – Sync your bookmarks to the cloud

Xmarks might not be aimed at or designed specifically for research, but it does come in handy. Sometimes we share links as bookmarks. And sometimes we use multiple browsers. And sometimes we’re not even researching on our own computer, but a public one How To Be Completely Portable Without Your Own Computer Or Smartphone This day and age it’s pretty uncommon to not see someone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop in a public place like a library. We’ve become quite reliant on them, wouldn’t you say? So reliant,... Read More . Well, with most of these services that I’ve mentioned so far, accessing them from the cloud is one of their biggest assets and Xmarks is no stranger to that party. Like we’ve stated on MakeUseOf before XMarks Syncs Bookmarks & Passwords Between All Major Browsers Read More , Xmarks allows you to sync your bookmarks, not only to the cloud, but to other browsers and mobile devices. Although some of the features do cost (like syncing to your smartphone or tablet), the primary services and benefits of it are free. Now, Xmarks isn’t the only method of syncing your bookmarks to the cloud 5 Xmarks Alternatives to Sync Bookmarks Across Devices and Browsers Wish you could sync your bookmarks across all devices and browsers? Here are the best Xmarks alternatives to use. Read More , but it certainly is one of the most popular and best ways to do it.

Digital Notepads – Quickly jot down ideas without hassle

Sometimes, even if you use a service like Evernote or OneNote, you might just want to quickly make a note with out the need of an account or program. I’ve compiled a list Use Your Keyboard To Make Notes: 10 Websites For Quick Note-Taking Have you ever just wanted to jot something down real quick, but couldn’t find a pen? Or maybe you could, but later lost the note with a bunch of other notes which were used for... Read More of some great websites that allow you to do this without any need of signing up. These are excellent if you just want to jot down a quick thought or idea.


While researching you might run into a word or so that you don’t know. This could even be while you’re already starting the process of putting it together. You could open your web browser and go to your favorite search engine, or you could use CleverKeys by the reputable CleverKeys is a free downloadable program that integrates with your software to provide access to’s definition database in your word processing software, email and browser. In addition to that, it doesn’t clutter your computer screen. Unfortunately this is Windows only.

Where To Research

internet research tools

One of the challenges on the Internet is sifting through the copious amounts of information that is either irrelevant or inaccurate for one reason or another. There are two places that I highly recommend: Wikipedia and your organization’s own resources provided to you. Now, you might already have thought that Wikipedia was the place to go or maybe you even disagree with that, but there’s no arguing that it is a great resource in at least accompanying other sources that you’ve gathered.

Now what do I mean by “your organization”? I mean your school (college or high school), or workplace (or any other association that you might be doing research for). Most likely they have an abundant amount of resources available to you, especially in the educational setting. All you need to do is put in the effort to find it.

What To Write With

web research tools

Alright, so you’ve gathered your information with the best tools and from the best sources, now what do you use to put it all together? Microsoft Word? Well, if you have already chalked up the money for it and it’s on your computer, then I would recommend you use it so it’s not a waste of money. And it’s not a bad program! It just can be a little pricey for some. If you are one of those who want a cheaper or even free alternative to Microsoft Office, look no further than the MakeUseOf article, 9 Of The Best Free & Low-Cost Alternatives To Microsoft Office The 7 Best Free Microsoft Office Alternatives Microsoft Office is the king of office suites, but that doesn't mean it's the right one for you. Here are some other office suites you might like better! Read More .

So what do I personally recommend? If the cloud is something that you are interested in, Google Drive (Docs) and Microsoft Web Apps are both great options. If you are want a full-fledged desktop office suite, then consider Kingsoft, SoftMaker or LibreOffice. I extensively review each of those and more in the article I linked to above.

Tips To Make It All Go Smoothly

Despite all that I’ve shared, there are still more things that you can do to help make the process or researching go as smoothly as possible.

Sync and backup

web research tools

Many of the services I’ve covered already sync with the cloud, but unless you go the route of using a cloud service like Google Docs to type your research paper, you’ll have the files on your computer. And any time that’s the case they are vulnerable to being lost and must, I repeat, must, be backed up. There are some awesome back up services Dropbox vs. Google Drive vs. OneDrive: Which Cloud Storage Is Best for You? Have you changed the way you think about cloud storage? The popular options of Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive have been joined by others. We help you answer which cloud storage service should you use. Read More available for syncing and backing up your local files to the cloud, as well as many for automatically backing up your computer to an external hard drive, flash drive and/or CD or DVD. Personally, I love SugarSync SugarSync: The Most Well-Rounded Free File Backup & Syncing Service File backup is not a new conversation or topic by any means. If you search Google for “file backup” you will likely be overwhelmed by services and articles on the topic. It is a vast... Read More . But there are a plethora of excellent cloud services.

Surf safe

web research tools

When researching, you are clicking links like crazy, hoping to find that one great source of information. This opens you up to additional vulnerabilities that you may not otherwise be subjected to. This happens for a couple reasons:

  • Higher concentration of clicking/link opening
  • Anxious and willing to try anything

With those two combined, you’re just asking for trouble. I know – I’ve been there. The solution lies in a tool called Web Of Trust (WOT). You can read more about it in the MakeUseOf review, Browse Safely With Your Own Internet Bodyguard Called WOT Browse Safely With Your Own Internet Bodyguard Called WOT Read More .

Secure your computer

Conquer Your Next Research Project The Easy Way With These Tools security

In addition to surfing safe, it’s good to make sure your computer is protected to any potential threats that you might encounter during your “high concentration clicking session.” If you’re unsure what kind of antivirus program to use or how much you should pay, first you probably you do not need to pay for one as you can get an awesome antivirus program for free. Second, read this MakeUseOf article by Matt Smith for more information: Free Anti-Virus Comparison: 5 Popular Choices Go Toe-To-Toe Free Anti-Virus Comparison: 5 Popular Choices Go Toe-To-Toe What is the best free antivirus? This is among the most common questions we receive at MakeUseOf. People want to be protected, but they don’t want to have to pay a yearly fee or use... Read More .

Note that the second part to having a secure computer is ensuring that you have the most recent updates and patches: 3 Reasons Why You Should Be Running The Latest Windows Security Patches & Updates 3 Reasons Why You Should Be Running The Latest Windows Security Patches & Updates The code that makes up the Windows operating system contains security loop holes, errors, incompatibilities, or outdated software elements. In short, Windows isn't perfect, we all know that. Security patches and updates fix the vulnerabilities... Read More .

Organize your files

Conquer Your Next Research Project The Easy Way With These Tools file management1

I’ve talked about this a lot on MakeUseOf. In fact, I mention this and backing up as much as I can. Why? Because they both tie into practically every “tech subject” and are the two most important things to make sure you are as efficient and productive as you can be on your computer – that’s why you have a computer in the first place right? Sometimes I think we forget that we have one to make our lives easier and instead get lax. This creates lost files and I’m not talking about the computer crashing kind of thing, although that happens too Prepare For The Worst: Disaster Recovery Tips You Need To Use Now Your biggest enemy is simply putting it off. Read More . I’m referring to files you lose because of your laziness. Please. Do yourself a favor and make your life easier and organize your files: Creating Order From Chaos: 9 Great Ideas For Managing Your Computer Files Creating Order From Chaos: 9 Great Ideas for Managing Your Computer Files It's frustrating isn’t it when you can’t find that file? When you’ve searched every folder imaginable on your computer, and somehow it got lost….or worse, deleted. Now, there are excellent search tools for Windows that... Read More .

Save two copies: one as a PDF

research tools

When sharing your work, it’s nice to have a copy that is for editing and a copy for viewing. Not only does a PDF provide the reader with a cleaner reading experience, it keeps you in control of the changes to the document. It’s more universal. And there’s even a modified PDF format that prevents the document from being printed, which ensures a more paperless lifestyle The Future Is Here - Your Guide to Having a Paperless Life Today Paperless – a term that is used quite often now days. But what does it mean? And to what extent does it apply? Certainly we all still use paper to some degree despite the advancements... Read More .


Research is a hard enough task without excellent tools to help collect, save and organize your information. Why make it harder than it has to be? Use these research tools on your next research project and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

What are your thoughts on the process of researching? Are you one to procrastinate on it? Or get it all done ahead of schedule? What tools have you found useful to your system? If you haven’t yet created a system or used tools to benefit you, how do you think the tips and tools mentioned in this article will change your next research project?

Below are some related articles that also might interest you:

Image Credits: RESEARCH. Magnifying glass via Shutterstock | An image of a hand drawing a sketch via Shutterstock | Close-up of typing male hands via Shutterstock | Laptop with Internet Search engine browser window via Shutterstock |  Typewriter via Shutterstock | Laptop exchange of data with cloud via Shutterstock | Mouse and rescue circle over white background via Shutterstock |  Online Security via Shutterstock | File organization via Shutterstock | PDF Symbol via Shutterstock 

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  1. Jim Spencer
    December 8, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Great article guys, one of the hardest parts of a research project is in how to organize what you need. This has some great tips to glean from, in whole or in part.

  2. Helmut REO
    December 8, 2012 at 2:47 am

    Hi Aaron,
    Thanks for this great overview article. What I find most useful is the overview of tools, and that you include plenty of free options.
    Personally, for the action-planning step, I either create outlines or mind maps.

    IMO, outlines are better if you want to go into details and possibly include data and links as well. Mind maps make it easier to see the big picture. Since information is presented in a circular fashion, you also tend have the first and the last step close together. This makes for some interesting mental connections.

    As to the tools: I would use an outliner/note taking app that allows you to collapse and expand headings such as OneNote (PC) or OmniOutliner (Mac). Especially when your outline gets big, this is extremely helpful. Mind Mapping tools such as Freeplane or Freemind also allow the collapsing and expanding of branches.

    For the information-gathering step, I have found that I tend to collect a huge amount of information from websites, which I later don't need to keep. While you can save everything to Evernote, OneNote, or Zotero, I include a preliminary step where I collect and organize web information with Diigo (directly on the web) which keeps my own information store a lot cleaner. I have posted an article on this at
    In a second step, webpages, articles, and summaries (created with Diigo) I want to cite and include in my bibliography go into Zotero which integrates very well with Word. Zotero does all the formatting (APA, MLA, Chicago…) which is usually really a pain when done manually.

  3. Shmuel Mendelsohn
    December 6, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    This may make school easier!

  4. Ben Muriru
    December 4, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Great article! I am one of those who procrastinate on projects which always involve research. When I do get down to researching, the process is very disorganized. MS Word is my main tool. That should give you a rough idea of my research process! I will try out your suggestions and see if things improve!

  5. Joe Johaneman
    December 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Another idea is research communities., CiteULike, and Mendeley.

  6. Neb
    December 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Or use Linux and all will be fine, fast and free....

  7. Joe Johaneman
    December 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    For Mac users, DevonThink is a great way to organize your research. It has a rudimentary AI to help organize and analyze data. DevonSearch Pro is a pretty powerful search/research program that integrates with DevonThink. They're both fairly expensive, but worth it if you're a college student, a writer, or someone else who does a lot of research.

  8. George Atkinson
    December 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    If all this had been available in the 1960s I'd have done a PhD, Good stuff

  9. 69588f5c7a8de428b109b0de88fe4ce4
    December 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    With respect to "Where to Research," don't forget your public library. Public and academic libraries have online reference resources that are free for patrons to access. These subscription-based resources search newspapers, academic journals and more. Also, consult the reference librarian. They can often tell you where you might find the information you need.

  10. Anonymous
    December 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    awesome article, especcialy for me - writer begginer ;) thanks!

  11. Joe
    December 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Skydrive is not a good cloud resource to recommend. If you forget your password, to reset it you have to be able to input a captcha word.
    Fine you'd think.
    Not so.
    It is VERY difficult as there is no way to differentiate when the letters are small or capital.
    I've moved over to google drive. Much better.

  12. Mark Alsisto
    December 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    For me, I'm still using the "Just do it and get started" method. By starting a few lines, the ball will keep rolling. IMHO

  13. ?????????? ???????
    December 3, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Nice article, bookmark it.

  14. Junil Maharjan
    December 2, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Good tips. bookmarking it.

  15. Mac Witty
    December 2, 2012 at 2:02 am

    Thanks, always good to get help to put the workflow together. Think I sometimes do not use the software and services optimally when I combine

  16. Scott MacDonald
    December 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Where was this article when I was in High school!?

  17. Melroy D'monte
    December 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Comprehensive.. I like it ..Thanks

  18. Keith D.
    December 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Good read! Lots of great info! Very practical and applicable.

  19. Joel Lee
    December 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Nice roundup of useful software. I found a few gems that I'd never heard about. Awesome.

  20. Ahmed Khalil
    December 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    very useful and informative article, thanks for sharing this with us

  21. yarasa GR67
    December 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Very nice and usefull tutorial, thanks, for me Zotero, Evernote and Springpad are the best. This is my huble opinion of course...
    The big advantage belongs to Springpad because!!

  22. Kelly Karpinski
    December 1, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Great article. The people at MUO are good at providing links to useful software. By the time I am done with an article I have at least five tabs open.

  23. Anonymous
    December 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm


  24. Rahul Saigal
    December 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Nice article, though i want to share my view point too

    1. When i start researching, i briefly do my planning in freeplane mind map, and create a basic idea.
    2. I start browsing and collect notes in citelighter, and save bookmarks in pinboard as a collective tag
    3. If there are some research papers i will use zotero to collect them
    4. Initially i used to use libre office as my word processor, but nowadays i use scrivener for writing. Seriously Aaron, if you are writer, and love writing scrivener is awesome..though it cost 40 dollar, you can install in 2-3 of computer freely and features are awesome
    5. Once i finished writing, i compile my documents and paste all the citations from zotero and citelighter.

    PS - i am not promoting scrivener, but i hope you will love it after using it for a while

  25. Din One
    December 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks For The Great Tutorial Dude...

  26. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    December 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I'm still using hybrid-traditional style, which combines my real paper notebook and Wiki on a Stick to keep research materials, all in my Dropbox. Bookmarks and other short notes are in Clipcube (portable), also in Dropbox. Works pretty well without using too much different programs.

  27. Jagbir Sembhi
    December 1, 2012 at 4:12 am

    nice article