Head in the cloud?

Helpful online tools for academics

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When was the last time technology left you stranded?

For me it was when I was stuck on hold with my Internet provider and praying that my connection problems would be resolved soon. I simply couldn’t continue working without the Internet! At that moment, it became painfully clear to me just how much of my work happens online.

I’m guessing that it’s probably similar for you. These days many tools are only available online with a working Internet connection. Gone are the days when you could only run programs by installing them locally on your computer.

In this post, we’ll discuss the advantages of online tools, what you need to consider when using them, which categories of tools can be especially helpful for academics, and how you can use Citavi online.


Why use online tools?

One big advantage of cloud-based tools is their convenience: look for journal articles on your tablet in the morning while eating your breakfast, start writing your paper in your university’s computer lab in the afternoon, and borrow your roommate’s laptop to make some corrections in the evening. With online tools you can usually use any device available to you, although a smartphone or tablet aren’t the best if you need to type a lot. Just make sure to remember your password!

Cloud tools are also especially useful when working in a team. Geography and time no longer a limiting factor for collaboration, and you can work with people from around the world.

Another plus is that your information is saved centrally and backed up automatically by the service provider. If someone were to steal your computer and your backup drive, you would still be able to get to your data. You also don’t need to worry so much about technical requirements: usually you just need a current version of a common browser and your work can start.


Which tools can help you with academic tasks?

It’s not always easy to decide which tool or combination of tools will be the right fit for your workflow. In addition, the sheer number of tools can be daunting. It can seem like a new app is released every day! Once popular tools can disappear just as quickly.

Make sure to test a tool before integrating it into your workflow. Also, don’t worry too much if you later find that a tool is no longer useful for you. Your workflow and the apps you use will change over time.

The list of cloud-based tools below should be relevant to all academic disciplines, but keep in mind that there are many more out there for specific disciplines as well.

Reference managers

Online reference management tools let you keep track of your sources online so that you can later correctly cite them in your papers. Most online reference management programs also let you save notes to a source, such as an evaluation. While some tools are only designed for sources available online, others also let you keep track of the citation information for more traditional sources, such as books. Citavi Web will soon be released and, like the tools listed below, it will let you work on Citavi projects directly in your browser.

Examples: BibSonomy, CiteULike, Diigo, F1000 Workspace, Mendeley, Paperpile, RefWorks

Idea-capturing tools

These tools let you keep track of notes, lists, ideas, sketches, drafts, etc. In addition, they provide search features to make it easier to find an item again – no more digging through a pile of index cards!
These apps have many different formats (for example, lists, boards, mindmaps, or tables) so choose one that best fits your workflow and how you think.
Examples: Evernote, Lucidspark, Milanote, mindmeister, OneNote, Weava, WorkFlowy

Collaboration platforms

A number of social media platforms that have been designed with academics in mind. They follow the example of Facebook with a focus on cooperation and communication. However, their community is limited to an academic audience.
These tools let you share the latest research results with your colleagues, investigate research questions collaboratively, and upload preprints (if you’re not sure what a preprint is, you can find out in our previous blog post). You can also share research data and manage projects.
Examples: Academia, FigShare, Mendeley, Notion, Open Science Framework, ResearchGate, Zotero

Online storage drives

Online storage extends your local hard drive and is for many people the image they have in mind when cloud services are mentioned. You can save files in a folder on your computer, and they’ll automatically be synchronized with your online drive.

You can access your drive via your browser, making it possible to download documents on other devices. Online drives also let you transfer larger files to other people by making files accessible with a link.

One note of caution: if you are actively working in a database, such as a local Citavi or EndNote project, make sure to pause synchronization to avoid defects.

Examples: Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive

Writing tools

Gone are the days in which you needed to email a Word document back and forth between team members. With online writing tools you can see changes and comments from your team members right away – often with each team member’s comments shown in a different color.

Examples: Auratikum, Google Docs, Overleaf, SciFlow, SmashDOCs, Word Online, Zoho Writer


How can you use Citavi in the cloud?

Citavi Web, a browser-based version of Citavi, is currently in development. Although Citavi 6 is not yet an online-only tool, since it requires a local installation, you can create cloud projects with Citavi 6, which you can then access from any computer with a Citavi installation. Although you initially need an internet connection to set up the project, you can then work offline for longer periods of time.

With the Citavi Word Add-In, you can insert references, quotations, and ideas into your document. You can save this Word document in a Cloud drive in order to work on it in a team:

  1. Create a document with Word
  2. Save the document on a cloud drive, for example OneDrive.
  3. Invite others to work on the document, making sure to give them editing privileges.
  4. Each team member can insert information from the shared cloud project into the Word document.

You can also use an online LaTeX editor, such as Overleaf, with Citavi. This video shows how.

The release of Citavi Web will coincide with additional add-ins for Google Docs and Word Online. This will let you write with Citavi regardless of the operating system you use.


What should you be aware of when working with online tools?

Online tools come and go, sometimes faster than expected. If a provider shuts down a service you’re using, your data could disappear in the blink of an eye. This differs from a program that’s installed locally on your computer and will continue to run as long as it remains compatible with your hardware and operating system.
Before you invest a lot of time in a tool, check if there’s a way to export your data. Which export formats are available and which tools can import these formats? If you’re working with a freemium tool, is it possible to export for free or is exporting a premium feature?

In Citavi Free it’s possible to export references, notes (knowledge items), and tasks without having to  purchase the full version.

Make sure to also back up your data from time to time on a local device. Citavi offers archive copies for this.

In addition to being mindful of backup and export options, it’s good to be aware that online tools require a stable internet connection. While this seems like a no brainer, it’s easy to take Internet access for granted. Many tools accessed via a browser can’t be used when you’re offline – as I realized all too clearly when my Internet stopped working. However, there are also some tools that require you to be online when you set up your account and projects, but then allow for offline work. That can be very helpful when working on the train or if you live in or travel to an area that does not have great coverage.

In case your Internet access is lost unexpectedly, make sure to create a backup plan. For example, you can choose a smartphone plan that gives you enough data in case your home internet is out for a day or pick a prepaid service with low rates for additional data packages.

Last but not least, be aware of the service’s data privacy policies. Many free online tools require you to share personal information in exchange for their use. It can be eye-opening to actually read the terms and conditions you agree to when you sign up for a service. If you’re ever unsure about how legitimate a tool is, you can check with your IT help desk at your university.

If you take these precautions, you will be well prepared – and no one will be able to accuse you of having your head in the cloud.


Which cloud platforms do you recommend for academics? Share your favorite tool with us on our Facebook page!


Recommended reading (not only for librarians)

Ovadia, Steven (2013): Librarian's Guide to Academic Research in the Cloud. Witney: Elsevier Science & Technology (Chandos Information Professional Series). ISBN: 9781780633817 






Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 3/12/2019
Tags: Workflow

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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