101 alternative research tools to support your research project

We do not always fully appreciate how powerful the alternative research tools can be.

Do you get annoyed when you have an important task to complete within a tight deadline, but the license of the research tool you need has just expired?

I know that feeling – I have been there myself as student and academic.

I remember like it was yesterday when I received comments on one of the research manuscripts that I produced at the early stage of my PhD. One of the reviewers has asked me to provide an additional set of results.

It seemed straightforward – I thought. After all, I had the process model ready; I just need to run another case study and make sure the results are valid.

But my eagerness was quickly put down when I realised the license to the software I was using had not been extended yet.

I was so frustrated and furious.

As the young PhD researcher, I was not yet aware that I can ask the editor for extension. Even when asking for one, I felt ashamed.  

This wound not have happened if I decided to explore the open-source and alternative research tools to those I used during my PhD.

I do not want to say that the open-source software is better (or worse) than the commercial research tools. It is down to your personal preference (and most likely budget!)

Nevertheless, I believe it is at least worth to explore some alternatives and understand the benefits of using alternative research tools.

Alternative research tools can expand your skill set and make your research more resilient
Nowadays you can find a variety of alternative research tools to support your research project

I compiled a list of 101 alternative research tools so that you are aware of the options that you consider to support various aspects of your research project, from writing and note-taking, through data analysis and visualisation, to project management and data management. This list includes both open-source and freemium tools that you may find interesting.

Benefits of open-source and alternative research tools

The key benefits of using open-source and freemium tools are:

  • free to download and use;
  • being continuously upgraded and improved by their developers;
  • more secure and better quality (quicker updates);
  • available on multiple platforms and operating systems; and
  • open to modifications by its users so you can flexibly adjust it to your needs.

Disadvantages of open-source and alternative research tools

Regardless of the advantages, you need to be aware of the following drawbacks of open-source and alternative research tools:

  • tend to evolve in the direction dictated by the developer, not the users (in contrast to commercial research tools);
  • can be less user friendly and not as straightforward to use;
  • may have an ugly user interface;
  • may include service or technical support fee;
  • may include no support service
  • vulnerable to malicious users

Writing and notes taking

Writing and taking notes is the fundamental activity in your PhD.

As I mentioned in my previous article on the best research tools to supercharge your writing and data analysis, an efficient word processing program is essential to achieve high productivity in your writing.

Most of you use Microsoft Word or LaTeX to produce the research manuscripts or PhD thesis drafts.

You also may use Evernote to take notes and write down your ideas for the next research paper.

However, not all of you have access to Microsoft Office. You may also want more functionality than available in the Basic plan (free) of Evernote.

It does not matter what tools you use for writing your manuscript, but make sure you consider alternative research tools to improve your productivity
You will spend a lion’s share of your time writing in your research project. Consider alternative research tools that may improve your productivity and suit your preferences better!

Here is a list of open-source or free alternative research tools to those popular commercial research tools.

Alternatives to Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office)

Alternatives to Evernote

Reference management

Making sure that you properly reference the work of others when you use it is crucial to avoid plagiarism.

Managing your references is key to efficient writing and project delivery!

It is also critical to keep track and store your references so that you can easily access them when you write your research paper or PhD thesis. Efficient management of your literature will help you become more productive, as I mentioned in my previous article on tools for literature review.

I hate when I read something and forget where I read it!

To safe you the trouble, here is a list of the open-source and free reference management tools. 

Presentation and visual communication

Communicating your research is key to achieving impact with your work. As we like to say at Motivated Academic, you are the ambassador of your research.

You are the ambassador of your research. Make sure you use tools that work for you and enable you to deliver presentations with impact.

Beyond research papers, presenting your work at conferences is second most popular way to share your research.

If you want to learn about 25 ways to share your research, get our free eBook here

In case you do not have access to the Microsoft PowerPoint, do not panic. Here are efficient open-source or free alternative tools that you may explore.

Data analytics and numerical analysis

Generation of new data and its comprehensive analysis is the heart of each research project. Would you agree?

There are many alternative research tools that are as powerful as the commercial software. Try them out!

If available, we tend to use Matlab, Mathematica or SPSS as our preferred research tools for analysing our data.

If you are in engineering, you are probably familiar with Ansys for finite element analysis, Fluent for computational fluid dynamics, or Aspen Plus for chemical process modelling. 

The challenge with using these commercial research tools is that it usually is difficult for other researchers to replicate your work and build on it.

In my academic career, I wasted hours building and validating process models that other researchers have already developed.

This is why, in my research, I have started replacing commercial software with open-source and alternative research tools. Although it goes slowly, as I need to re-build and re-validate the models I want to share, I trust this will enable others to build on my work and deliver better results.

Below you can find some of the alternative research tools I consider using in my work.

Alternatives to Matlab and Mathematica, SPSS

Alternatives to Qualtrics

Alternatives to Ansys (FEA)

Alternatives to Fluent (CFD)

Alternatives to Aspen Plus and Aspen Hysys

Data visualisation and diagramming

Representing your research idea in a graphical form can help your research getting noticed. After all, the potential readers usually look only at the title and graphical abstract of your work!

A picture can tell more than 1000 words. Try these alternatives to commercial software to produce clear and beautiful diagrams and figures! Check out the alternative research tools that will enable you to employ your creative site to elevate the impact of your research project.

If you have access to Creative Claud, you can use Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator to create beautiful graphical representations of your work. If you are in engineering, you may be using AutoCad or SolidWorks to present your systems.

But these commercial research tools require a licence that may not be available at your organisation.

You must have also heard that a figure can represent more than 1000 words. Although the science behind your work is the key factor that will get it published, using neat and clear diagrams to visualise your data always adds value to your work.

Yes, you can use Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Excel or Matlab to produce your figures and represent your data.

But if you do not have access to the commercial software, here are some open-source and free alternative research tools you may use instead.

Alternatives to Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Excel and Matlab

Alternatives to Photoshop

Alternatives to Adobe Illustrator

Alternatives to AutoCAD and SolidWorks

Team communication

Staying connected with your research team is important, especially now when most of us still works from home. 

Communication with your research team is a key to success in your research project.

We have recently seen a boom in new tools for communication. Zoom, Teams, Duo or even WhatsApp are just a few examples of efficient communication tools.

If you decide to use open-source software, make sure it includes relevant encryption. Also, check with your research team if they are happy to use it!

Project management

Do you often ask yourself how to find time to meet your deadlines, run fascinating experiments, write interesting and engaging papers, and communicate your impact, for example, using social media?

How do you do all this, stay sane and enjoy your work?

The answer is project management.

Having a detailed plan for your research project will help you succeed and manage your time better! Check out the alternative research tools that will help you manage your project better!

If you do not have access to Microsoft Project, which is the industry standard for project management, here is the list of open-source project management tools.

Neural networks and data mining

If you are interested in science, engineering or technology, you must have heard about artificial intelligence, machine learning and artificial neural networks.

Artificial neural networks and machine learning can bring your research project to the next level!

During my PhD, I wanted to expand my skillset and I applied neural networks as a surrogate response model to represent a complex system. You can read my work here.

Such work can be done using Matlab.

However, if you want to explore artificial neural networks, here are some alternative research tools you may want to explore.

Desktop publishing

When you share your research in the form of reports or briefing documents, you may want to present them in a neat and eye-catching way.

If you want to increase impact of your research project, make sure you publish your work beyond journal papers and conferences!

If you have access to Adobe Creative Cloud, you would probably use InDesign that is the industry-leading layout and page design software.

However, if you just want to try putting a white paper together, you may consider the following alternative options.

File management and backup

At last but not least, it does not matter if you are doing your PhD project, working on a project as a postdoc, or are a Master student working on your first individual thesis.

Managing your files and making regular backups will enable you to focus on important aspects of your research project.

File management and regular backups are key to keeping your project running efficiently. Using cloud to store your data enables you to access your files from any device and share it swiftly with others.

In most cases, cloud-based systems include auto-save options so you will never lose your work.

If you do not want to work in the cloud, there are also alternative tools available that you can use to regularly backup our work. You never know when your PC will give up, considering the crazy amount of simulations and data processing you may be doing right now!

A final word…

Considering the global push for open science, alternative research tools are available for literally each commercial software.

There is also an increasing availability of free (or freemium) software that will be sufficient during your research project.

The main benefits of using alternative research tools is that they are free to use – you will never be surprised by an unexpected licence expiration again!

Before you commit to using such tools in your project, make sure you test it properly, understand the pros and cons, and verify accuracy versus commercial counterpart.

I trust you found this compilation of 101 alternative research tools useful for your research project.

Leave a comment to share with us what software do you use in your research!

Would you like to see reviews of these alternative research tools?

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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