18 free tools that help scientists to write better and more productively

A selection of writing tools – from collaborating, time-tracking and project management to finding the perfect phrase or translation.

I often get asked about my favourite writing tools. That’s why I compiled this list for you with 18 great tools to support your writing. You can use all these tools for free and some of them have paid versions with additional features.

Just one word of caution: Exploring new tools can be a time-suck and distract you from getting your actual writing done. If you are one of those people who spend hours signing up for new tools and feeding in data, only to abandon them a few days or weeks later – then be careful reading this list, don’t get overenthusiastic. 😉

By the way, I don’t have any affiliation with any of the software listed below, and none of these are affiliated links.

Here, we go, 18 writing tools I recommend in no particular order:

1. Toggl

Toggl is a time-tracking app that you can install on your phone and computer. There’s only one way of knowing how long certain writing tasks typically take you, and that is by tracking the time they took you to complete. Time-tracking has another great advantage: You can identify time-sucks in your day. And these may be less obvious than you think.

I like to use Toggl for time-tracking because it’s quick to do and integrates with various other software I am using. You just need to click the big red power button to start or stop a recording and assign tracked times to different projects. The app has paid plans but for most people the free basic plan will be sufficient.

2. Phrasebank

Created by Dr John Morley from “The University Language Center” of Manchester University, the phrasebank is a database of common phrases used in papers, dissertations and grant proposals – a real goldmine!

The phrases are organised both by the common sections in a paper such as the introduction, methods, results or discussion section. For example, in the tab for the introduction section, one can find entries for “establishing the importance of the topic for the world or society” or “identifying a knowledge gap in the field of study”. If you click on the latter, you can find among others the following suggested phrases: “It is still unclear whether…”, “However, the behaviour of X has not yet been investigated” and “Causal factors leading to X remain speculative”.

You can also look for phrases by choosing a general language function. Some of the choices are “being cautious”, “describing trends”, “signalling transition”.   

I often use the phrasebank to find the perfect phrase when I edit papers and proposals for my clients, and I frequently recommend my clients to use it when writing. Go, bookmark it now! PS: You can also download the Academic Phrasebank as PDF or Kindle file.

3. Forest

Are you easily tempted to check your phone when you really should be writing? An app called Forest may be just right for you then. Once installed on your phone, you can start planting a virtual tree whenever you want to focus. It grows from a little plant to a full-grown tree. When you pick up your phone and leave the app, the tree dies. In this way, you can build your forest representing the time you have spent on focused work (or quality time with your family and friends…). I’m not using Forest myself, but I’ve heard that it works really well for some people. Give it a go!  

4. Thesaurus.com

If you’re looking for synonyms, thesaurus.com is the best online thesaurus I’ve found so far. It divides the synonyms based on different meanings of the word and indicates the relevance of the synonym by using three shades of orange.

Just one word of caution: Don’t fall into the trap of using too many synonyms in your papers and proposals. Being precise is so much more important than varying the words you are using in your writing. In particular for field-specific terminology, I advise against using synonyms.

5. Zotero

There are a few reference managers to choose from, some of which cost money. Zotero is free, open-source and doesn’t lack in functionality. You can easily save references from your browser, organise them in folders and with tags and create bibliographies with the right style. You can also create a citation library with your co-authors or share your library with others.

6. Trello

Trello is an excellent project management tool, which you can use for managing your various writing projects. You can create a writing pipeline and track the writing tasks for a particular paper or proposal. Trello is a lot easier to learn and use than other project management software. For each project called “Board”, you can create different “lists”, to which you can add “cards”. The great thing with Trello is that you can move the cards easily between lists, add to-do lists and comments to cards and work collaboratively. This means that you can give your co-authors access to your board and assign certain tasks, aka cards, to them. You can also use Trello as a brainstorming tool, using the cards just as you would use post-it notes.

 
 

7. Grammarly

Grammarly is a Google Chrome extension that checks the spelling and grammar of your writing in any browser window. Whether you are writing in google docs, composing an email or sending off a tweet, Grammarly underlines any English language mistake and suggests improvements. I’ve found it to be just as good as the language check in Word.

8. Focusmate

As Forest (see tool #3), Focusmate is an app to help you stay focused. Instead of  gamification, the concept of Focusmate is based on social accountability. It works like this: You schedule a 50-minute virtual coworking session with another Focusmate member, turn on your webcam when your session starts, greet your temporary co-worker and get to work silently.

Personally, I like this way of coworking a lot, even though being filmed while working is a little strange to start with.

9. Authorea

The magazine “TechCrunch” describes Authorea as “a Google Docs for scientists”. On the platform, you can write, edit, and insert citations, figures and data. And it’s great for collaborative writing: Co-authors can access the same text at the same time, track the changes they made, insert comments and even live-chat during writing sessions. Documents can be imported from LaTeX and Word and exported as LaTeX, Word and PDF documents. You can also submit your article as a bioRxiv preprint straight from the Authorea platform. The software is free for up to three private documents or for students and educators for up to six documents.

10. Todoist

Todoist is an online to-do list organiser and project management tool that comes as an app and browser version. You can organise your tasks in projects and schedule them for a certain day. The tool shows you today’s tasks as well as those for the next seven days. It also tracks your productivity, i.e. how many tasks you have completed. Todoist is an alternative to Trello (see tool #6) or can be used in addition.

11. Otter

This is a hot tip for anyone who has to transcribe interviews for their research (hello, social scientists!), for researchers who like to record research ideas or even for those who like to write by dictating in their phone. Otter is an AI-based transcription tool that works for English language recordings. The quality of the transcriptions is comparable to other transcription services using AI, meaning they are often not accurate and can give nonsensical, even comical results. Still, the automated and quick transcriptions (real time transcriptions are available too!) can be a good starting point and a huge time saver. What’s cool about Otter compared to its competitors is that they give you 600 minutes of transcriptions per month for free!

12. Linguee

There are many online dictionaries but Linguee is my favourite. It suggests a translation on the basis of previous translations published on the internet.  Therefore, this dictionary is especially great if you’re looking to not only translate a word but a certain turn of phrase or idiom. Linguee translates to and from English in over 20 languages. An essential tool for all non-native English speakers!

13. Feedly

Feedly is a neat RSS feed manager that helps you stay up to date with the scientific literature. Instead of getting email alerts from journals (and who wants to get more emails…) you can view and organise the literature you are interested in by following the journal’s RSS feeds. You can not only use this for scientific literature but also subscribe to blogs, for example this one, by simply putting the URL in the Feedly search: https://www.annaclemens.com/blog.

14. Xmind

Are you a mindmapper? Then you need Xmind, a free mindmapping and brain-storming tool. It’s intuitive, looks good and does exactly what you want a mindmapping tool to do. The free version allows for embedding of hyperlinks, images, attachments, so you can really use it however you like! That’s all I can really say about it as I’m not using mindmapping myself. But I know some scientists swear by it!

15. Zoom

Do you have collaborators in another town, country or continent? Zoom might be the perfect virtual meeting software for you. I use Zoom myself when I meet my clients in strategy sessions. I like the tool because it’s reliable and the video and audio quality is always good. You can also easily record a conversation. If you are on a call with several people, it’s easy to mute the microphones of those who aren’t speaking. Zoom is free for meetings under 40 minutes with up to 100 participants.

16. Slack

Slack is a chat tool that you can use in your lab or with your collaborators. Used in the right way, it allows you to save time by cutting down on emails and create a group atmosphere even if the members are not working in the same location. You can easily add files to the chats and create different channels for subgroups and certain topics. There also exist virtual communities on Slack you can join, such as the New PI Slack community for Assistant professors around the world. 

 

17. Overleaf

Overleaf is to LaTeX users, what Authorea (see tool #9) is to Word users: an online editor that allows you to access and collaborate on your writing projects from anywhere. You can, for example, invite others to comment on your work. Overleaf offers some other neat collaborative writing features, such as a track-changes function, but – unfortunately – only on the paid plan.

18. Cold Turkey

If Forest (tool #3) or Focusmate (#8) don’t get you to focus on your writing, you may need to go Cold Turkey. The software blocks any other application and turns your computer into a typewriter. You can choose whether you want Cold Turkey to prevent you from digital distractions for a certain amount of time or when you’ve reached a certain word count. With the paid version, you can even access integrated productivity soundtracks and text formatting.

That’s it: 18 apps and software that can support you in your writing process. Have you tried any of these tools? Or do you know of an amazing free tool that is missing in this list? Please leave a comment below and tell us!

Do you need help writing papers that get cited and proposals that get funded? Check out my scientific writing coaching and editing packages.

 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Anna Clemens is a scientific writing coach and editor

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and structurally edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog and assistant Zuza or sipping an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.

I’d love to connect with you on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and LinkedIn.