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Cheap Cheap Free!


I’m becoming more and more taken with the availability of free, reliable, and in many ways superior software for doing academic work. For anyone starting out, here are my suggestions.

Get a Mac. I know that sounds deliberately provocative in an article about free software, but I really think it’s the frugal choice. Old Macs are easy to come by (Apple nerds are constantly updating their gear). Apple laptops are really well made and run for ages. Last computer that I bought was an almost new 11” MacBook Air for £300. It’s great. I’m sure that I could not have found a better laptop.

Why get a Mac? Because Apple give you bunch of useful, if not quite perfect, software for free. Safari is pretty good, as is Mail, the Calendar app is fine, Text Edit is nice, and Preview is a great PDF reader (there’s also Notes, which can have locked notes, Reminders, and Photos). Plus, remember when you had to pay for your operating system? No more. Updates have been free for a while, and likely to stay that way. Sure, most of what I’ve just said could apply to a Windows PC (and definitely to a Linux OS) but it’s all easily packaged on a Mac, everything works together nicely. Believe me, I wasn’t always this way, but once you start seeing the Apple OS as a frugal workhorse (and not a shiny show-off machine) then you start to appreciate these little things.

For analysis, use R. R is great, although there’s a bit of a learning curve. Apparently even some hard-core coders find it a bit weird. It was written by data researchers, and with each ‘package’ (extensions with additional features) there’s something new to learn.

For writing, use RMarkdown in RStudio. Almost everyone who uses R uses RStudio for the syntax highlighting, nice layouts, and debugging. But there’s much more to it, and that much more is RMarkdown. RMarkdown is an extension of Markdown, the super-simple formatting ‘language’ (if you can call it that) that I am using to write this now. The ‘R’ part just means that it speaks to R and an embed results, graphs, and tables from your analysis as you write. RMarkdown is just great for writing anything, from blogs to articles.

To produce something that you can share with the world, RMarkdown needs to be converted into either HTML, a Word document, or a PDF. RStudio will do this for you, but to get a PDF output you’ll need to install Latex. Latex is ugly and really tedious, but RMarkdown lets you avoid 99% of the hassle while keeping 99% of the flexibility. PDF outputs can be annoying for co-authors who want to track changes, so it’s useful to have the option of producing Word documents for those who can stand working in Word (you can open the Word docs in Google Docs or just Preview to get a sense of how things look, but for fine control it’s best to stick with PDFs).

For references, use BibDesk. BibDesk manages a library of .Bib references, a human-readable way to organise your references. The great thing is how well .Bib libraries work with RMarkdown in RStudio. You can enter references just by typing in their ‘key’ (usually the name of the first author and the year) and when the PDF or Word document is created the bibliography will be automatically generated too.

For note taking there’s Apple’s ‘Notes’. Better is something called nvALT, which stores all of your notes as text files. That way if anything goes wrong you can still get access to your notes (e.g. by opening them in Text Edit). nvALT is super quick at creating new notes and searching existing ones. It also uses the Markdown language, so you can format notes with headings with ease.

Finally, get Self Control. This little program shuts you out of distracting websites for as long as you tell it to, and no amount of pleading (or even restarting) makes a damned bit of difference.

Apart from the up-front cost of the laptop, none of this stuff costs any money. And there’s tonnes of other open-source software out there. Plus, you don’t have to put up with advertising when you use any of these programs. Apple’s Mail, for example, works well with Gmail, but filters out the ads that clutter your inbox when you use Gmail online. Adobe Acrobat is fine for reading PDFs, but there are also often little ads floating around. Without spending any money on software, or selling your personal data to ‘pay’ for services, it is possible to produce publication-quality work. This was a vision for the internet and, quietly, it’s becoming a reality.

Written on April 9, 2018