Finding your academic writing workflow mojo Part 4: Data management

In this post, I outline my experience with some data management software tools. Like my other posts in this series, I discuss software that I have actually tried at least in demo mode, and the options here are focussed on those that run on Mac.

Data management is sometimes only thought of after a researcher is neck-deep in data. Better to start out with a plan in mind, and an understanding of how the data management system will be used for data analysis and how it will interact with the other applications in your workflow. In Part 4, I list what some might find a kind of random list of software packages as they are not all direct competitors with one another, but they all play a role in organising and recalling qualitative data and ideas.

NVIVO (Mac & Windows)

Nvivo, is Qualitative Data Analysis software. Many institutional have subscriptions, which is great. If you have to buy it yourself, you might find the USD 1,340 (990 for Mac) a bit pricey (Mac is cheaper because it has fewer features). It is, in many circles, a standard for qualitative data analysis. Basically, you can import data from several types of sources: .doc, .pdf, audio files, video files and so on. Then you can organise them into folders and code it to your heart's delight. I mentioned in Part 3 that this could be useful for literature, even though it is mostly used to code interview data or notes. Nvivo has a bibliography import function that imports data from EndNote. Since I gave up on EndNote a while ago, I haven't tried this function, but it looks like a great way to get all your literature into QDA software to code and analyse. The real power of QDA is the ability to run queries later to look at how many data sources are coded for both X and Y or to pull up all your notes about topic X. It takes time to code your data, but once it is done, recall is unbeatable.

Dedoose (Mac, Linux & Windows)

Dedoose is also for QDA, but is web-based. It is built for collaboration and does not require any special servers like NVIVO does if you are looking to work with others. The principles are more or less the same and although Dedoose doesn't have all the features that Nvivo does, it can do all the basic queries that Nvivo can do without some of the splashy reports. In the Mac world, I would say that Nvivo 10 for Mac and Dedoose are quite comparable in terms of features except that Dedooes excels in collaborative environments. Dedoose is available for a reasonable monthly fee and only charged for the months you log in. After using Nvivo for one collaborative project, I moved to Dedoose and haven't looked back. I will say, however, that I was using Dedoose for one project that required uploading about 1400 PDFs, which proved incredibly troublesome. The short version is that Dedoose support and I converted all PDFs to doc files and then imported them in small batches (big ones crashed it)

Quirkos (Mac, Linux & Windows)

Okay, I haven't tried Quirkos, but it looks interesting. It's a one-time purchase for USD 705 to USD 65 depending on whether you are commercial, student or in between. It looks pretty simple and uses a "bubble" concept, which is different, but basically does the coding and reporting that you would expect in the most basic QDA applications, so in terms of organising notes, it should be fine, all the way up to coding your interviews.

Evernote (Mac, Linux & Windows)

I use Evernote extensively (and love it), just not for academic work, but I know people that use it to take and organise academic notes. Evernote's strong points are the ability to quickly take notes and to add tags. It is also always available on your smartphone and synced to your computer. I suppose that this would be possible to do for notes and keeping random ideas, but I tend toward using mind-mapping software and proper QDA software. I consider Evernote (and any of its contemporaries like OneNoteKeep and so on) fairly basic. Evernote notebooks can be shared with other Evernote users, so there is some ability to collaborate and they have added a chat application, which shows more commitment to collaboration.

Mindnode (Mac)

There are a lot of mind-mapping software packages out there. I settled on Mindnode Pro. You get hierarchical ideas connected to one another and, unique to the Pro version, you can also connect ideas outside of the hierarchy- that is key for me as my thinking is not particularly linear. I don't really care about all the little icons you can put into your mind-map, you some people might go for that. I have never found mind mapping software that integrates with reference managers. It would be nice to be able to cite from the reference manager in the mind map to connect and build theory, but alas, this is a manual process in all the applications at which I have looked. I imagine there are collaborative online mind-mapping software packages, but I have not tried any of them.

Scapple (Mac & Windows)

Brought to you by the Scrivener people, Scapple is a very nice mind-mapping tool.  I don't see a whole lot of practical differences with MindNode except that Scapple is not about making hierarchies of ideas, but just connecting them. There is some basic formatting that I use to make my central idea clear, but really Scapple is an open canvass. The cool thing is that once you are done with your basic Scapple, you can export it to Scrivener and start writing. This could be great depending on how you like to work and if you enjoy getting all your ideas down, this conversion means you don't have to enter them all again. Related to the hierarchy point, Scapple items imported to Scrivener have no hierarchy so you have to organise them again yourself. There are no collaboration features in Scapple, so it would have be saved to a shared folder or sent by e-mail in Scapple format or PDF for comments from others.

DevonThink (Mac)

DevonThink is a Mac favourite. Its real strength is in its search algorithms and ability to find what you are looking for quickly. It is quite powerful, and I am convinced that I don't make full use of it yet, but here is what I do: I index relevant folders (usually of literature, but also articles captured by RSS feeds). I have used three different reference managers for three different projects, so I have PDFs all over the place. DevonThink brings them all together and I can search those folders (and only those folders) looking for certain text strings. I can also reference the files that I use in QDA software, so everything comes up at once. It would be better if everything was coded, but it's not, so I use text searches. In Part 3, I mentioned that I set Skim to export the text of my annotations and highlights on PDFs. In DevonThink, I have an indexed folder that only holds SKIM files, which allow me to only look through my notes and the important bits. This can be a real timesaver and I often do this search first. If I can't find what I am looking for, then I do the wider search. DevonThink Pro can also OCR (optical character recognition) your PDFs so any scan are searchable. This is the best application in my arsenal for recalling literature, but there is nothing really collaborative about it.


I mentioned in Part 1 that people use Scrivener for organising data and notes (it is more than a word processor). I have never tried Scrivener that way, although I really like the application. I just find that adding another software to my workflow is getting too much, and Scrivener has no collaboration features. Otherwise, there is, of course, the idea of making your own database. I won’t elaborate that here as these are custom solutions. If you have a lot of quantitative data, of course, you need a separate set of tools that I also do not go into here and they can be quite specific to your needs.

There are also lots of QDA software packages. Try Wikipedia's lists of QDA and mindmapping software.

This article was originally posted to the author's LinkedIn page.