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5 Killer Apps for Digital Scholars

As academics, we’re used to dealing with clunky technology. Whether we’re trying to organize a course on Blackboard or navigate a database with an interface designed in 1997, sometimes it can feel like our tech is working against us.

That’s why it’s so nice when an app simply works. These five applications can make some common tasks considerably easier for the modern scholar.


Zotero Citation Manager

Zotero is a citation manager that allows scholars to organize research, create bibliographies, and maintain a personal library. Zotero started out as a Firefox extension, and one of its most impressive features is still its ability to pull full articles and citations from popular databases with one click. The application maintains lists of books and articles that can be readily converted into bibliographies in MLA, APA, or any major citation format. Rival citation manager RefWorks is also worth a look.

Alternatives: RefWorks, Endnote. EasyBib for dilitantes or the half-hearted.


Calibre is a unified ebook management platform that allows users to integrate their ebook libraries, convert ebook files between formats, and transfer ebooks to various devices. It’s also handy for reading .epub or .mobi files on a PC or Mac without many of the annoying restrictions one encounters on readers from Adobe, Google, or Amazon. Calibre can also be configured to remove pesky DRM from purchased ebooks, although this accessing this functionality requires some tweaking. In any case, Calibre is the perfect organizational tool for those (like me) who use digital books in their research.

Alternatives: None (Calibre is in a class of its own)


There are many apps designed for “mind mapping,” which is essentially a fancy term for graphics-based outlining. FreeMind is a lightweight mind mapping utility that allows users to sketch ideas visually using a simple interface. It also allows easy exportation of mind maps to other formats, such as PDF and HTML. Great for outlining papers or getting down nascent thoughts before they slip away.

Alternatives: Coggle, XMind.

Google Drive

Having a cloud-based system for file management is becoming increasingly important for class management, collaboration, and maintaining backup data. Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) and rival Dropbox solve a number of problems for the modern academic, and the first time you collaborate on a Doc with another research in real time you’ll be sold on Google’s technology. On the other hand, services such as SugarSync offers more space and more storage and sharing features.

Alternatives: Dropbox, SugarSync

Khan Academy

Good learners make great teachers, and a number of sites have popped up in recent years that allow easy access to new skills and training. One of my personal favorites is Khan Academy, which offers videos and tutorials on a wide variety of topics. Khan Academy is slowly transforming into a digital learning platform that offers assessment and live tutoring in addition to video lectures. This trend is being followed by other digital learning platforms, including Apple’s <a href="http://www.apple.com/apps/itunes-u/?cid=wwa-us-kwg-features-com&siclientid=6381&sessguid=83aba7ce-ceae-4f3a-ab80-eff9d67c80a0&userguid=83aba7ce-ceae-4f3a-ab80-eff9d67c80a0&permguid=83aba7ce-ceae-4f3a-ab80-eff9d67c80a0">iTunes U. TED Talks is another accessible way to stay up-to-date on the latest developments inside and outside academia.