This post might seem a trifle umm… politically insensitive after recent revelations in the UK about exactly how much corporation tax Google pays (answer – basically none), but I’ve been planning it for a while, and unlike Starbucks (which should be boycotted at all costs, because their coffee sucks) Google is a little harder to avoid, and actually provides a whole slew of incredibly worthwhile, and mostly free, services. One of the first things you should do when you start an undergraduate course at a college/university is sign up for a Google account. Here’s why:
You’ve probably already got an email address, but if you’re not using Gmail then you need to switch. The interface is brilliantly usable and customisable, and you get a massive 10Gb of storage for all your mail – more than you’ll likely ever need. The most important benefit though, is Gmail’s ability to pull all your current and future email accounts together in one place. Gmail can be set up as a POP3 client (here’s how) meaning it can pull email in from several different accounts and present it all in one inbox. You’ve probably got an account already, you’ll definitely get an account on your university’s servers, and when you leave and either go on to postgraduate study (maybe at a different university) or get a job, you’ll almost certainly get given yet another account. Gmail can centralize everything, and mean that you only have to check one inbox for all your accounts. You can even configure it so that it sends mail through, say, your university account by default, so people you contact see your ‘official’ email address. I’ve currently got five email accounts configured to read through Gmail, and I honestly couldn’t manage without it. Additionally, if you start using Gmail from day one, all your contacts and mail are saved in your Gmail account, and won’t be lost when you complete your course and your university account inevitably gets cancelled/deleted. Another benefit of Gmail is its ease of use with various smartphone platforms. Android (obviously) and iOS devices are designed to sync up with Google accounts pretty much seamlessly.
So, set up a Gmail account, and assume it’ll be your email address for life. Be sensible. Don’t choose a username like firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com – choose something you’ll be happy to put on a CV when you leave college, i.e. something that pretty much consists of your name.
In one sense, Google Drive is a simple online storage locker for any kinds of files you like, a bit like Dropbox, or any of the other similar services which have proliferated recently. You get 5Gb of free space, and it’s easy to set up file sharing for specific other users, or to make your files available for download to anyone you send a link to. In another sense, it’s a full-featured web-based alternative to Microsoft Office, with the ability to create/edit documents, spreadsheets or presentations online, collaborate on them simultaneously with other users, and download them in a variety of the usual formats. Use it for just backing important things up, or use the full ‘Docs’ features – it’s up to you.
One other incredibly powerful feature of Google docs are the forms tools. These can be used to create online forms – the best way I currently know of to create online questionnaires for research purposes. The data from the questionnaires all gets dumped into a google docs spreadsheet for easy analysis too – very cool. This page has some good tips.
3. Google Scholar
Google Scholar is pretty much my first port-of-call for literature searches these days, and is often the best way of looking up papers quickly and easily. Yes, for in-depth research on a particular topic then you still need to look at more specialised databases, but as a first-pass tool, it’s fantastic. You can use it without being logged in with a Google account, but if you’re a researcher, you can get a Google Scholar profile page – like this: Isaac Newton’s Google Scholar profile page (only an h-index of 33 Isaac? Better get your thumb out of your arse for the REF old boy). This is the best way to keep track of your publications and some simple citation metrics.
4. Google Calendar
Yes, you need to start using a calendar. Google calendar can pull together several calendars together into one, sync seamlessly with your ‘phone, and send you alerts and emails to make sure you never miss a tutorial or lecture again. Or at least, you never miss one because you just forgot about it.
Blogger is owned by Google, so if you want to start a blog (and it’s something you should definitely think about), all you need to do is go to blogger and hit a few buttons – simples. That’s the easy bit – then you actually have to write something of course…
6. Google Sites
Probably the easiest way to create free websites – as for Blogger above, you can literally create a site with a few clicks. Lots of good free templates that you can use and customise.
Yes, I know you use Facebook, but Google+ is the future. Maybe. The video hangouts are cool, anyway.
8. Other things
Use your Google account to post videos to YouTube, save maps/locations/addresses in Google Maps, find like-minded weirdos who are into the same things as you on Google Groups, read RSS feeds using Google Reader, and oooh… lots of other things.
Honestly, the feature of Gmail should be inducement enough for everyone to sign up for a Google account, the rest is just a bonus. Get to it people – it’s never too late to switch.
Following a couple of comments (below, and on Twitter) I feel it necessary to qualify somewhat my effusive recommendation of Google. Use of Google services inevitably involves surrendering personal information and other data to Google, which is a large corporation, and despite these services being free at the point of use, it should always be remembered that the business of corporations is to deliver profits. Locking oneself into a corporate system should be considered carefully, no matter how ‘convenient’ it might be. This article from Gizmodo is worth a read, as is this blog post from a former Google employee.
So, you’ve got a lovely juicy essay/paper or research project to write, and instead of spending hours going through card catalogs in the library you obviously want to get your research done in the fastest way possible – on the internet. Here are my best tips for finding material for a paper or essay using online databases. In a nutshell – there’s more to finding information on the web than just typing some keywords into Google and using what pops out on the first page of results.
As a general rule, you should familiarise yourself with what databases are available to you – some are totally open-access, while others require some kind of subscription. Most universities and colleges subscribe to a lot of them, and you can usually find links to available databases on your college’s library website.
The way I usually start is with a couple of really general search terms on Google Scholar. You could start off searching on Google’s regular web search page, but all you generally get there is the wikipedia page, and you wouldn’t be stupid enough to reference wikipedia in an essay, would you? Of course not. Say your essay is on working memory – so stick “working memory +review” (without the quotes) into google scholar. This gets you about 2.2 million hits! Change the middle drop-down box at the top to restrict your search to the last, say, five years and then you have less than half a million references to go through – easy. Of course you don’t have to look through half a million papers – the great thing about Google Scholar is that it ranks things in order of ‘influence’ – which roughly translates as the number of times that paper has been cited by other papers. While there’s lots of arguments about exactly what this means in terms of a paper’s genuine influence, influential papers tend to get more cited than others, so it’s a reasonable metric. Hopefully you’ve got a couple of good review papers there on the first couple of pages that will get you into the topic. The other really great thing about Google Scholar is that it links directly to PDFs of the papers (when they’re available on the net) which enables you to directly download the papers with a single (right-)click. Of course if you use reference management like Mendeley (and if you don’t, you’re an idiot) you can also import references from Google Scholar directly into your library. Here’s a nice page which talks about some advanced tips and tricks for getting the most out of Google Scholar. Read the rest of this entry