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How to structure bullet point lists

What are bullet point lists?

When lists are presented with one list item per line, following an indented marker or symbol. they are commonly referred to as ‘bullet points’ or ‘bulleted lists’. Bullet point lists are widely used in science report writing but are rarely used in peer-reviewed journal articles (primarily due to save space).

What is the purpose of bullet points lists?

Bullet point lists are generally used for unnumbered and unordered lists and allow information to stand out separately from paragraphs and other surrounding text. Well-designed bullet points help attract the attention readers skimming a document and help them to quickly absorb multiple subtopics.

Making sure that bullet points are structured correctly also writers to clarify their thinking. Bullet point lists avoid the need to force a sentence or paragraph to contain lengthy and unwieldy lists. They allow the writer to be more succinct as the repetition needed to link connected sentences within a paragraph can be removed. They can also help to reduce the word count if the list is composed of simple phrases or sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

The problems with the use of bullet point lists

Many writers are unsure about how to structure bullet point lists and use them incorrectly. Some writers use paragraphs when they could have used bullet points and some overuse bullet points instead of writing paragraphs. Some writers haphazardly throw all types of information into bullet points, making them difficult to read. Therefore, guidelines are necessary.

When and how should bullet point lists be used?

There are different ways to structure bullet points. However, ensuring consistency and clarity of meaning is crucial. Two common questions I’m asked are “Should bullet points be capitalised?’ and “Should bullet points be followed with commas or semi-colons?” My answer to both is, that it depends on what you are writing and how your structure your introductory elements and list items. An introductory element is the use of a phrase, sentence fragment or complete sentence to introduce the bullet point list.

1. Bullet point lists are introduced with a phrase, a sentence fragment or a complete sentence. 

The introductory element is usually followed by a colon (See Example 1).

Example 1

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- the current software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- what to keep in mind when searching for good software tools.

(from ‘FAQ: What software tools do I use for writing and teaching?’)

2. If an introductory element stands alone as a statement, it doesn’t need any punctuation (see Example 2). Nevertheless, in this example you could still place a colon after the introductory element.

Example 2

Remember

- Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.

- Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or to use as templates for future projects.

- Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as your document drafts.

 (from ‘The essentials of science writing: plan before you write’ )

3. Each list member must logically complete the meaning conveyed in the introductory element.

As Example 1 is introduced with a sentence fragment (‘The following is a brief overview of:’) each list item must form a grammatically-correct complete sentence when combined with it. For example, the second list item would be read as: “The following is a brief overview of how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.” This is why the first word of each list item is not capitalised and why full stops are used at the end of each list item.

It is very common for writers to avoid this important guideline and not check to see if each list item logically follows on from the introductory element. An incorrect way to represent the information in this Example 1 would be as follows:

Hypothetical Example 3

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- Includes a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- Also some tips to keep in mind when searching for the good software tools.

The last two list items, although still relating to the topic, do not follow on from the introductory element. For example, the 3rd list item would read, “The following is a brief overview of Include a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.This does not make sense.

4. If the bullet points are composed of complete sentences, they should be each be treated as a normal sentence with capitalisation and terminal punctuation (e.g. full stop, question mark) (see Example 2 above).

5. Consistency is crucial:

- Use the same symbol or marker for your bullet points throughout your document

- Although you have different types (structures) of bullet point lists within the same document, all list items within a bullet point list should be the same format: all phrases, all sentence fragments or all complete sentences.

This is another reason why Example 3 is incorrect as the 3rd point is a complete sentence, while the 4th point is a sentence fragment and both are dissimilar in structure to the first two points.

6. Bullet point lists items that are phrases or sentence fragments need no punctuation (see Example 4).

 

Example 4

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, or what they need. This can cause the following problems:

- providing too much (or not enough) detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

(from How to identify your target audience,)


7. Ensure that your list items are distinct from each other.

An example of indistinct list items:

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- how different pricing models influence the way I research software tools.

In this example, the 3rd list item is closely related to the 2nd list item, so I would either combine them all leave point 3 out.

8. The list items can be presented in any order. If they must be presented in a certain order, they should be numbered and considered a ‘numbered list’ and not a bullet point list.

Example of a numbered list

Steps to complete your enrolment:

  1. Read the terms and conditions.
  2. Download and complete the application form
  3. Email the application form to emailus@address.com
  4. Follow instructions in enrolment notification email.

9. Use commas or semi-colons at the end of each list item if you are presenting a list as though it was part of an entire sentence (see Examples 7 and 8). 

Hypothetical Example 7 (with commas)

The site contained the following species:

- Eucalyptus saligna,

- Eucalyptus siderophloia,

- Eucalyptus oreades and

- Eucalyptus regens.

As a complete sentence this would be written as “The site contained the following species: Eucalyptus saligna, Eucalyptus siderophloia, Eucalyptus oreades and Eucalyptus regens.”

This type of bullet point list could also make a complicated list easier to read than if it was written in a sentence (see Example 8).

Hypothetical Example 8 (with semi-colons)

The site contained the following species:

- Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings);

- Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs);

- Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs);

- Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings);

- Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings);

- Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and

- Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

As a complete sentence this would be written as “The site contained the following species: Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings); Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs); Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs); Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings); Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings); Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

If you find you are writing these types of sentences or bullet point lists, depending on the type of document you are writing, it might be better to use tables instead.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email admin@writingclearscience.com.au 

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The essentials of science writing: plan before you write


Writing is a complex activity that needs planning

The planning process prior to science writing is often ad-hoc, limited or non-existent. If you are rushing for a deadline and keen to get started, it might be tempting to cut corners and skip the planning process all together. If your planning is limited to jotting down a title and a few key points before you start, you might find you lack focus when you do start.

As science writing is often a complex activity, it may need complex planning, whether you are writing about your own research or someone else’s. In order to produce a high-quality document, important decisions and specific planning is needed before you start writing, especially in relation to document design and identifying your target audience. Careful planning is also needed to avoid excessive rewrites and extensive editing.

DOWNLOAD THE CHECKLIST: Document Preparation Plan - Checklist

An effective plan needs to be prepared as a separate document

Careful planning involves thorough decision-making which takes time. Written plans are commonly prepared for scientific activities such as completing field work and lab work but the writing of a research report or paper is not usually given the same degree of planning effort. Not only should you plan before you start writing, your plan needs to be written into a coherent, separate document that you and your colleagues can refer to and update as you progress.

An effective plan will help you to get started and stay focused

Getting started is one of the most difficult obstacles to successful writing. A lack of planning can lead to inefficient writing in the early stages; for example, writing too much detail in some sections and not enough in others or spending too much time writing about an idea that will be cut out later. If you begin your writing with an effective plan, not only will it help you to get started, it will help you stay on track. A clear plan will allow yourself sufficient time to think about what you want to write and reduce the risk of producing a document that is difficult to read and understand.

An effective plan will help you collaborate with other writers

When writing with colleagues, planning is often undertaken through face-to-face discussions, emails and phone calls, without sufficient documentation. Preparing a written plan may significantly reduce time spent rewriting and redrafting when working with co-authors or if senior staff need to approve your drafts. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing and perfecting your thinking on a topic, only to have this work cast aside because a senior author has left important decisions on a document’s structure or purpose to the last minute. Once a written plan is agreed to, any changes can be monitored and implemented through regular reviews and updates, if necessary.

Traditionally, document plans focus upon content

Document plans are not new but usually focus upon what should be in the final version (e.g. report templates) and outline what the author should write to satisfy a project’s purpose and objectives. Planning the process of writing is also important.

What should be included in a document plan?

An effective document plan should consider how you might manage each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting of ideas, editing and rewriting, and proofreading. A document plan should cover all design, preparation and production activities needed to successfully complete your document. I refer to this type of plan as a Document Preparation Plan that addresses key aspects of both document production (Part 1) and document design (Part 2). As with any plan, you should not expect it to be perfect. It will not be possible to predict exactly what will be written or exactly what is needed to manage all writing-related tasks. A Document Preparation Plan should be short and succinct and updated when necessary, depending upon the size of the writing project and whether co-authors are involved. It needn’t be written in complete paragraphs; bullet points may be all that is needed.

Part One. Document production

The first part of the planning process involves documenting all tasks that need to be managed in order to successfully complete a high-quality document. It can include how and when these tasks will be completed.

Factors to include:

  • Outlining your purpose (reasons) for writing
  • Identifying your target audience
  • Listing all non-writing activities needed to complete the document and setting appropriate deadlines for each
  • Listing all resources needed for all writing and non-writing activities

Part Two. Summary of document content & structure

This is the part of a document plan that most writers complete at the first stage of the writing process, but not always satisfactorily; many writers postpone developing their core message until the final stages of writing. However, it is crucial to decide what key messages you want to cover before you start writing including your aim or problem statement and key findings. Your key messages and overall conclusions may change as your progress through your writing, but completing this first step in the content planning process and gives you a firm framework on which to build your story.

Some factors to consider:

  1. Draft title and subtitle.
  2. The aim and problem statement.
  3. Summary of methods & results.
  4. Implications of the results and general conclusion(s).
  5. Document type (i.e. science report) & length.
  6. Type and number of visual aids (i.e. graphs, tables, diagrams).

To help you design a document preparation plan to suit your topic, I have developed a Document Preparation Plan (checklist) which is available as a download (pdf).

DOWNLOAD THE CHECKLIST: Document Preparation Plan - Checklist

Remember

  • Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.
  • Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or use them as templates for future projects.
  • Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as your document drafts.
    .

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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When to cite and when not to

What information should be cited? Where do I place the citation in a sentence? These two questions are commonly asked during my writing workshops and online courses. Other problems I regularly see are too many citations to support a piece of information or statements of fact that should be supported by a citation. This blogpost reviews the basic concepts of citation and discusses the importance of always citing your sources.

What is a citation?

Authors of scientific documents use citation to indicate when information comes from another source: who wrote (or produced) the information being discussed and when it was published.

The standard method of citation is to insert in-text citations directly before, or after, the information that is attributed to another source or author. These citations are then listed at the end of the document within either a bibliography or reference list. A reference list includes only the references that are cited, whereas a bibliography is both a list of the references cited and additional references used when researching and writing the document.

There are many different referencing styles, including the Harvard style which is commonly used in science publications. The Author – Date (Harvard) in-text citation is where the authors surnames and dates of publication are written within brackets at the end of a sentence or phrase. For example. “Aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water (Gonzales et al. 2006).” (Magellan 2016, p 452)

If there is more than one citation for a particular statement, the citations are separated by semicolons. For example: “The conflicting requirements for aquatic and terrestrial life are perhaps most pronounced in air-breathing fishes (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Graham 1997; Sayer 2005).” (Magellan 2016, p 452). This example also demonstrates the convention of ordering citations from earliest year published (1991) to latest year published (2005). If two publications were cited from the same year, then the order of citation would be in alphabetical order.


Where should in-text citation be placed?

I am often asked whether to place the citation at the end of the sentence, in brackets, or at the beginning, forming part of the sentence.

Often the citation is made after a statement of fact. If there are three statements within a sentence, there will be three separate citations lists within that sentence; An example from Magellan (2016, p 452), “Amphibious animals are adapted for both aquatic and terrestrial habitats and divide their lives periodically (e.g. Yeomans 1995; Dall’Antonia & Sinsch 2001) or ontogenetically (e.g. Martin et al. 2004; Blob et al. 2007) between water and land (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Sayer 2005).”

Alternatively, the authors of a publication can appear in the beginning of a sentence when it is used as the subject of the sentence, while the date of publication is written in brackets. In this case, the previous citation example of Gonzales et al. 2006 by Magellan 2016 could be rewritten as ‘Gonzales et al. (2006) found that aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water’. However, this type of citation increases the length of the sentence as the verb phrase ‘found that’ needs to be added.

As a general guide, if you use the findings of a study to develop your reasoning, it is easiest and more concise to place the citation at the end of the sentence. That way you can easily list more than one study as a list of citations in brackets, as in the example above. However, if you are discussing a particular study over more than one sentence, it is easier for the reader if you first introduce the authors as the subject of the sentence.
Irrespective of where the citation is placed, hyperlinking can used with electronic publications to link a quote or citation directly to the document being cited, as with the Fensham et. al (2017) paper cited below.

Ideas, quotes and paraphrasing should be cited

You must include a citation if you quote, paraphrase or summarise someone else’s information or ideas. Quoting is writing the exact words used by another author and enclosing the text in double quotation marks; for example: Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that “The findings of the current study support the importance of rainfall variability as the major influence on the demography of E. melanophloia, the dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna” (p. 780). The page number where the quotation appeared should always be included.

Paraphrasing is rewriting someone else’s writing using your own choice of words; for example, I would both summarise and paraphrase this previous quote as, ‘Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that rainfall variability is the major factor influencing the demography of E. Melanophloia.’ or ‘The demography of E. melanophloia is most strongly influenced by rainfall variability’.’ (Fensham et. al 2017).

 When using quotation marks, whether you use single or double quotation marks, be sure that you are consistent. Note that I used single quotes here to distinguish my wording and double quotes for the direct quotation.

Why do we cite?

The main reasons we cite is to clearly distinguish our work from others and so the source of information can be located and verified. Citation also honours the work or intellectual property of the author. Researchers most often cite other studies when developing their reasoning for their own studies, when comparing their work with other researchers and to indicate when authors reach similar or dissimilar conclusions. In this way, the citation process maintains and further develops the scientific discourse and shows how authors place their work within the published scientific literature.

What information can be cited?

It is a good idea to only cite information that has been published or made publicly available. Be cautious about referencing information from documents that are not publicly available or have not been peer-reviewed.

Unpublished research is referred to as grey literature. Grey literature is defined as “…research that has not been published commercially and is therefore not necessarily searchable via the standard databases and search engines. Much grey literature is of high quality and can be an excellent source of up to date research in certain subject areas. Examples of grey literature: government reports, conference proceedings, theses / dissertations, research reports, maps, policy statements, clinical trials, technical standards, interviews and newsletters” (UNSW 2018).

If it is necessary to cite unpublished information, the integrity of this information may come into question if no other sources are provided. Be cautious about generating conclusions or inferences solely on the basis of unpublished information.

How to cite different types of publications

Most Australian university library websites will list guides to different referencing styles; for example, Queensland University and Victoria University have in-depth guides on different referencing styles and how to cite and reference different types of publications. Also refer to Colin Neville’s book, The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (2016) for an in-depth guide on how to reference and cite a wide range of published material including books, papers, newspaper articles and audio-visual material.

What doesn’t need to be cited     

Information that is commonly known to be true is not cited. Common knowledge is information that is widely accepted as being true and does not need to be cited. However, what is common knowledge depends upon the knowledge of the audience: what is commonly known to some groups of people would not necessarily be commonly known by another group of people.

As readers, we trust that the author’s knowledge of what is commonly known, is true. For example, the quote from Fensham (see above) included an unreferenced statement that E. melanophloia is a dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna (Fensham et al. 2017, p. 780). I assume that this statement is common knowledge as it was uncited. Another example is that it is common knowledge to entomologists that (most) beetles have only one pair of flying wings, with the second pair of wings evolved to form protective covers to the flying wings. This fact would not need to be cited in entomology publications, not only because it is commonly known, but because it is easy enough to find out.

Avoid inadvertent plagiarism

Remember that unreferenced statements might be considered plagiarism. If you continually make unreferenced statements, you can mislead the reader into thinking that your un-cited information is either common knowledge or that you generated this information yourself.

Publications cited
- Magellan, K. (2016) Amphibious adaptations in a newly recognized amphibious fish: Terrestrial locomotion and the influences of body size and temperature. Austral Ecology 41,452-460
- Fensham, R. J., Freeman, M. E., Laffineur, B., Macdermott, H., Prior, L. D., & Werner, P. A. (2017). Variable rainfall has a greater effect than fire on the demography of the dominant tree in a semi-arid Eucalyptus savanna. Austral Ecology, 42(7), 772– 782
- Gonzales T. T., Katoh M. & Ishimatsu A. (2006) Air breathing of aquatic burrow-dwelling eel goby, Odontamblyopus lacepedii (Gobiidae: Amblyopinae). J. Exp. Biol. 209, 1085–92.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email admin@writingclearscience.com.au 

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FAQ: What software tools do I use for writing and teaching?


With the development of my online teaching programs and the need to manage most of my professional work online, I regularly use many different software tools. I am often asked about what software I use and to recommend the best software for different writing and teaching tasks. However, I am hesitant to do so, without qualification, as there are many decisions behind software choice. These include price, ease of use, operating system, device type, experience of user and individual preference.

Sometimes I use a certain piece of software and would prefer something better but either haven’t found an alternative or haven’t yet looked for something new.

This blogpost explains what software tools I use and what influences my choice. By ‘software tools’ I am referring to online browser-based applications, desktop (downloadable) software, and smartphone apps. I do not mention current pricing of any software tools as they always change. Most of the software tools mentioned in this blogpost are hyperlinked to their websites.

The following is a brief overview of:

  • my understanding* about the broad types of software tools on offer
  • how different pricing models influence my choice of tools
  • the current software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy
  • what to keep in mind when searching for good software tools

*Disclaimer:
- My comments about the software I use are my own opinion and are based upon my experience. I do not claim to be an expert on any of the software listed nor do my choices reflect a comprehensive list of what is needed for writing or teaching.
- I am not promoting any of these tools as ‘the best’ software tools nor do I necessarily recommend you use them but I think most are worth investigating.
- I receive no financial compensation for mentioning any software tools in this blogpost.

Ease-of-use and Pricing
After I have decided what software tools meet my key needs, ease-of-use and price are my primary reasons for making an initial purchase. Even though I have regularly used a wide range of software, since personal computers were released, I now expect software tools to be user-friendly and if they aren’t, I will replace them when something better comes along.  

The existence and quality of support is crucial

Once I have purchased a product, having access to reliable, quick support is essential for me to remain a customer, especially if I am paying monthly subscription fees. Unfortunately, it seems that the larger the brand, the harder it is to get good support or to be able to talk with a human: take Microsoft for example, where many people now rely on google and forums for troubleshooting. At least their support section has improved considerably.

If I am paying monthly subscriptions, I will look for new software if support is poor or they cannot fix my issues. If I have lifetime access to a software tool, I will persevere with issues but this can be a trap as you may waste time hoping things will improve when it’s better to cut your losses and pay more for good quality software (e.g. see my comments about my webinar software experience below).

My main gripes about software support is when:

  • they switch to different staff during the time it takes to solve your problem and someone new jumps in, doesn’t thoroughly read the previous emails and then you have to explain your problem again (and again).
  • their first assumption is that the user is inexperienced, even when your description of the problem obviously shows you aren’t. This assumption leaves support asking you the equivalent of the IT Crowd’s “did you try turning it off and on again?” which wastes valuable time if your issue is pressing.
  • they are so thoroughly familiar with the software they do not appreciate what it’s like for a new user. A lack of test-driving software with new users is usually obvious which is why I respect the effort put into beta-testing a product.
  • you list 2-3 issues at once and they only resolve one, leaving you to contact them again.

Tips for dealing with software support teams:

  • Make sure you use the same email address that you used to subscribe or pay for your membership, otherwise the system might not recognise you as a member and never get back to you.
  • When initially explaining your issue, if you need to write more than one sentence, first write it and save it as a document in a dedicated issues folder. There is nothing more frustrating when you spend half an hour describing your issue into an online help or ‘contact us’ form only to have it completely disappear if you happen to hit the back arrow on your browser.
  • List your issues succinctly and in numbered bullet points, if there is more than one issue. Sometimes they will ask you to open separate tickets for separate issues.
  • Always try to attach screenshots of your issue and if it involves a process, take a screenshot video to help explain problems. There are plenty of free screen recorder software tools available.
  • If you regularly use a software tool, join the software’s dedicated Facebook group, if they have one. You can often  have your issue solved by other users or get answers directly from a support person.
  • Be polite. No matter how frustrated you are at your issue, support staff are just trying to do their job.

How different pricing models influence my choice

I generally prefer to buy lifetime (once-off purchase) software tools instead of paying for monthly memberships. There are pros and cons to both types.

Pay-by-month or yearly subscription models: pros and cons

The key benefits to the pay-by-month subscription model that I see is that you will always have access to the latest version and it is within their interest to make sure you have quick, efficient support when you need it. Ensuring you have the most up to date features is also imperative for designers of the pay-by-month subscription model if they want to keep you as a customer.

The major con is the drain on the bank account if you subscribe to too much software. The pay-by-month subscription model is a big barrier in my choice of software for this reason. However, I have no qualms in paying reasonable prices for good, reliable pay-by-month software that is crucial for my needs, e.g., the Thinkific course platform.

Over the last few years, the move to monthly memberships fees is so common that it is difficult to find lifetime licences for any major brands. Nevertheless, this widespread move to monthly subscriptions presents opportunities for newcomers to capture new customers by offering inexpensive lifetime deals. AppSumo and StackSocial are examples of two distributors who commonly sell lifetime access products.

Lifetime-access licences for software tools: pros and cons

The benefit of lifetime-access software is that you only need to pay for it once usually at a far lower price than pay-by-month subscription software. However, downloadable, stand-alone software licences will often not include free updates. Whereas if you buy lifetime access to browser-based software you will automatically have access to the latest version.

AppSumo is a good place to find lifetime deals for software but most offers are time-limited. Although AppSumo’s target customers appear to be small business owners and marketing consultants, they regularly have good deals for a wide range of software tools. It is evident that a lot of these deals are for recently-created software, so some might not meet your expectations, but there is a generous refund period along with easy-to-operate refund procedures. Some of my favourite software has been purchased through AppSumo including GetStencil, Happy Scribe, PCloud, Missinglettr and Lumen5.

Free software: pros and cons

The main pro of free software is, of course, that it’s free. The major problem with free software is you may get limited functionality but sometimes that is all you need. I use the free version of tinypng to compress my images for my blogposts and marketing material.

Some software is advertised as ‘free’ but when you download it, you find it’s only a 7 day or 30-day trial. However, most reputable producers are clear about their offers and free trials are a perfect way to fully test something before you sign up for it.

If your budget is limited and you need to only choose free software, first look to see if there are any open-source software versions. Open-source software is free and is supported by an online community of developers that provide ongoing support through forums. For example, freemind software for mind-mapping and Gimp for photo editing, and Open Office as a replacement for Microsoft Office.

The software tools I regularly use

The following is a list of software tools I regularly use, in no particular order. I only store my data or information in software tools that have excellent security and allow data export to csv files in case I decide to switch to a new product. I always use multi-factor authorisation if a software tool offers it as a feature.

1. Voice-to-text

Voice to text software is particularly useful if you don’t want to type or need to turn a video or audio recording to text. I regularly use Happy Scribe to turn my lecture and webinar videos to text. Temi is also good and reasonably-priced. When away from my laptop, I use the microphone in the iphone keyboard (see image below) to transfer random thoughts to text via notes apps (e.g. Notes, Notion, Google Keep).

Use this button to convert voice to text.

2. Mind mapping

I find the quickest and easiest way to start mind mapping is to start with paper or a whiteboard so you can easily make a mess, then re-create the mind map electronically.

I use Simple mind both as an iphone app and a desktop application that sync with each other. The main issue that I have with a lot of mind mapping software is they only offer you one central node. As a refreshing break to this, Simple Mind now has a brainstorm feature that allows you to add new ideas without first having to worry about how they are connected.

3. Note-taking

I prefer note-taking apps that allow information to be stored in data trees or a structured hierarchy: similar to how files are stored in Windows File Explorer. I now use Notion which can be used for many different purposes in addition to note-taking and it easy to store webpages with the browser plugin.

4. Writing software

I use Microsoft Word for writing (typing) and Microsoft Notepad to quickly remove formatting from text. Scrivener is worth investigating. Originally pitched for fiction writers, it is also useful for non-fiction writers, PhD students and academics. The new version (3.0) has document templates for different academic journals.

5. Storing references and website links

I currently use Endnote and Papers (formerly ReadCube) for storing journal articles and books. When deciding which reference manager to choose, seek advice from your colleagues and your library if you are affiliated or work within a university. I use Pearltrees to store website pages that align with my teaching principles.

6. Reading and editing pdfs

I use Adobe Acrobat Reader for reading pdfs, Pdf Candy (Desktop and Web lifetime version) to edit, combine and split pdfs and PdfSam Enhanced to create text-fillable areas (forms) in pdfs.

7. Image, graphics video software

I use image and video editing software to create educational and marketing material. I use Microsoft PowerPoint to create brochures and teaching handouts, and slides for lecture videos, webinars and short-topic videos. Although I have access to the Adobe Suite, I prefer PowerPoint as it is quick and easy to use and surprisingly versatile: you can easily convert slides to images, pdfs and videos and they also have a free slide template library.

I use the following software to produce and edit the following material:

- Brochures and teaching handouts – Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel,
- Royalty-free images and simple graphic design – Get Stencil
- Infographics and templates – Canva, Slideshop and Microsoft PowerPoint.
- Video creation and editing – Camtasia (Techsmith) and Lumen5 to create videos for marketing.  
- Screenshot images and screenshot videos – Snagit (Techsmith).
- Image editing– Snagit Editor (Techsmith) for straightforward resizing and simple editing and GIMP for more complicated editing.
- Image compression – tinypng

8. Website tools and services

I run a wordpress.com website and use VentraIP to host this site as they are wordpress specialists, owned and based in Australia and have good ratings and prices. I use the WordFence plugin for website security and virus protection and Thrive Architect to build my webpages and to design my blogposts.

9. Webinar and online course platforms

I purchased lifetime access to Webinar Ninja but it was very glitchy and unreliable and I had to eventually stop using it as support was unable to fix my issues nor accept that their software was to blame. I now use Webinar Jam which is seamless, easy to use and reasonably priced. When I first released my online course How to be an Efficient Writer, I used the online course platform Kajabi which has its benefits but I moved to Thinkific this year as you get more features for the same price and the layout is more compact making it much easier for students to move through the course material. However, the student dashboard in Kajabi has a much better layout.

10. Email server and distribution

I use Google Workspace (Formerly GSuite) for emailing students and storing educational material and Mailchimp for emailing my newsletter subscribers.

11. Surveys

There are a lot of excellent survey platforms (e.g., Zoho Survey, Survey Monkey). If you only have a small number of short surveys you want to manage, you can use their free versions that limit the number of questions and features you can use. I use the browser-based Sparkchart platform as I have a lifetime subscription but it is not user-friendly. I may switch to Google forms to create surveys in the future, once I work out how to use its grid question feature.

12. Spreadsheets and databases

For password-protected data storage and spreadsheet and database management I use Microsoft Excel and Airtable.

13. Cloud and Backup storage

I use Sync as my main backup and cloud storage tools as they are fast, reasonably-priced and use end-to-end 256-bit AES encryption. I also use PCloud and Dropbox to share and store files but PCloud charge extra to encrypt their data and privacy issues have been reported for Dropbox. I use SyncBack to create mirror backups for off-site storage. If you are interested in encrypting the files on your computer via Windows, investigate Bitlocker.

14. Anti-virus and Malware protection

I have used Webroot for nearly 20 years for virus and malware protection and to prevent unintentional opening of suspicious websites. It is very reliable and inexpensive.

15. Social Media

I host a Writing Clear Science Facebook page and a twitter account which I primarily use to post links to my blogposts and online courses. I use Missinglettr [this is not a spelling error] to automatically send posts to my social media accounts.

Some software researching tips

  • Before deciding whether to buy or even trial a new piece of software, search for “[software name] walkthrough video” in YouTube to quickly see how the software works or “[software name] versus [software competitor]” to see how a piece of software compares to a different brand. For example, “Notion versus Evernote.”
  • Remember that software review YouTube videos are often made by the software developers themselves or by their distributors or affiliates who probably won't mention any flaws or cons. However, these types of reviews are still useful to quickly learn how to use the software.
  • Reading blogposts of reputable software reviewers are a good idea e.g., G2 Crowd and Techradar. However, always check their recommendations on software according to price. Reviewers may overlook the fact that low prices for subscription software are often only offered to new customers with the price jumping up significantly in the second year of membership. This leads me to my next tip…
  • If a subscription-model software is offering steep discounts, always check what the regular monthly fee will be after you are no longer a new customer. This was my key reason for leaving SiteGround as my website host.
  • Read three-star customer reviews. These types of reviews are usually the most honest and list both the pros and cons.
  • Be cautious if you can’t find a help button or ‘contact us’ link on their website.
  • Read the software comparison websites. Not only will you find out how different types of software compare to each other in features and price etc, but you can also find out what other types of software are available.

Please feel free to add your own tips and favourite software below.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email admin@writingclearscience.com.au 

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What is the difference between a good idea and a theory?

Some terms used to discuss and describe science are often used interchangeably which can cause confusion: for example, terms such as fact, hypothesis, theory, knowledge, information, results and findings. In this writing guide, I define some commonly-used terms used to describe science, while also explaining how science information is produced. 

I need to first acknowledge that numerous philosophers and have spent many years, even entire lifetimes, debating and discussing the precise meaning of some of these terms. So I encourage you to read some of the books by important science authors and philosophers including Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking to develop a solid understanding of science philosophy and the current developments in science. Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything is also an excellent coverage of science suitable for a wide audience.

Knowledge versus information

The term knowledge is often used instead of information. However, science knowledge is what people gain or learn through absorbing science information or through doing their own research. Science information is a collection of facts that is based upon evidence which is the result of peer-reviewed or peer-verified research.

The degree to which science information is considered true and correct will vary according to when the research was published, how large or lengthy the study was and the amount of published evidence that supports this information. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of information that may be considered true but is yet to be scientifically tested; for example, some home remedies for illnesses.


Facts, assumptions and opinions

A scientific statement of fact is an explanation of a phenomenon or something that is generally held to be true and can be proved by evidence. Facts can later be disproved, as can hypotheses and theories. Communicating information as a judgement or a statement of fact, but without providing proof that it is true, is expressing an assumption, while believing that something is true based upon little or incomplete evidence is forming an opinion.

Scientific opinions are generated from science knowledge, and may or may not be true, but they are important for developing new ideas, new hypotheses and new science. Scientific opinions and ideas need to be developed into hypotheses or problems that can be tested and supported (or rejected) by research.

What should be cited

Strictly speaking, all science information that is not common knowledge should be cited; that is, the source of the information should be presented so that the reader can verify that the information is supported by evidence. Where relevant, opinions should also be acknowledged, otherwise, it may be difficult for a reader to understand the difference between a scientific opinion and an uncited statement of fact (common knowledge).

Common knowledge is what would be generally be accepted as being true without question by a large proportion of a group of people familiar with a certain topic. What is accepted as common knowledge of a topic will depend upon the background, knowledge and experience of the reader.

Results versus findings

The science information produced by a study and published in a research paper is also known as the study’s findings. Collectively, both the Results and the Discussion parts of a research paper represent the authors findings. The Results present the data or observations of the study and the Discussion presents the author’s interpretations that explain what these results mean in relation to the scientific problem under investigation.

Traditionally, the format of the research paper is to distinctly separate the Results and Discussion sections so that the bare measurements of the results are not mixed in with, and made indistinguishable from, the author’s discussion or interpretations of their results. As different people may interpret the same data differently, it was (and still is) considered important to allow the reader to clearly see the results in isolation.  However, it may be difficult to separate results and discussion with some types of projects and within some disciplines.

Scientific interpretations are based upon the author’s knowledge, which is gained through their experience, through their reading and through their analytical (inductive and deductive) skills. If these scientific interpretations are accepted by peer-review and published, they may then be considered scientific facts. If other authors disagree with the interpretations in a published paper, they are expected to publish their own papers accordingly and a scientific debate may ensue. Individual interpretations will develop into a scientific consensus when similar studies produce similar results and different authors develop similar conclusions.

Similarly, a theory is supported by consensus. A theory describes the behaviour or activity of a phenomenon or phenomena. It is a statement supported by accepted hypotheses and empirical evidence. A hypothesis is a statement that describes the properties or behaviour of an object or phenomena. A hypothesis is either supported or rejected based upon the evidence developed from testing the hypothesis. A specific, simple hypothesis or null hypothesis is one designed to be easily tested; it can be either accepted or rejected or upheld or discarded. If repeated tests under different circumstances support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be developed into a theory. From this theory further hypotheses can be generated. A theory can be supported, validated, reframed, modified or rejected according to evidence. A theory that has been refuted must be discarded and is no longer referred to as a theory.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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  Self-Study and Premium enrolments available Learn more...


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