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Public health in the digital era part 2: the top 8 digital tools for health researchers

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Sometimes I fantasize about research before the Internet. I would’ve walked to the library to find cases in physical copies of the law reports, and read books made out of actual trees. Sure, it would’ve been slow and time consuming, but perhaps more manageable than the constant onslaught of facts and figures bombarding today’s researchers.
Most days I realize how lucky I am to have access to such a wealth of information. What’s more, there are a wide range of tools to help us manage research in the digital era. But using these tools effectively means customizing content to your interests.  Remember: rubbish in = rubbish out.

  1. Social media and social networking sites

You might think Twitter is all about Miley Cyrus’ tongue and Kim Kardashian’s wedding dress, but follow the right people and you’ll get up-to-the-minute news, reports on research, and commentary on emerging public health issues. It’s also an excellent way to build connections and create a public profile. So who to follow?  The O’Neill Institute, of course (@oneillinstitute), but how about Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett), Derek Yach (@swimdaily) or the Huffington Post? (@HuffingtonPost).

The O'Neill Institute on Twitter

The O’Neill Institute on Twitter

Facebook has spread its tentacles far and wide, mimicking the features of competitor social media sites. By ‘liking’ organizations such as the Institute of Medicine you can make Facebook perform much the same functions as Twitter. However, it doesn’t do as well on providing real-time updates on news and events.
Professional networking sites like LinkedIn offer a work-focused social networking experience, but they’re not always a good fit for those in the academic and research sectors. ResearchGate addresses this problem by allowing members to upload journal articles, ask and answer questions about their research, and find collaborators.

  1. News alerts

It’s tough staying on top of public health developments in a globalized world. Why go hunting down information when you can let it can come to you?  SSRN, Google and many academic journals allow you to set up alerts that send you news and research automatically. For example, I have a Google alert that sends me a summary of any news articles featuring the World Health Organization in the last day.

WHO updates

WHO updates

  1. Listservs

Listservs, or electronic mailing lists, allow organizations to distribute information to subscribers via email. They perform similar functions to news alerts, announcing the release of journal articles, summarizing  news, and alerting subscribers to recent commentary and blog posts. Some of the most useful are Ethics and Health Law News, Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report, and Kaiser Health News.

  1. Feed aggregators

Disclaimer: I’m one of the least tech-savvy people on the planet, but here’s my attempt at explaining feed aggregators:  they channel blog posts, podcast, news items and other web content into one website or application. This means that you don’t have to spend five hours checking each of your favorite blogs to see if they posted something new in the past week. There are a range of options here, such as RSS feeds, Feedly, and Google Reader, which had a lot of love until its untimely death last year.  My tech-y boyfriend likes NewsBlur, which is free and allows you to share stories via your own ‘blog’ (kind of like a tumblr).

My Newsblur account

My Newsblur account

  1. Note takers

Note-taking applications are increasingly popular, allowing users to create lists, store notes and synchronise content across different devises. Some of the most highly rated are OneNote, Workflowy and Google Keep. I haven’t made it past pen and paper yet  (see the disclaimer above), but I do use Evernote to ‘clip’ news articles that I’ve read online – it beats the bookmarks bar hands down.

Evernote in action

Evernote in action


  1. Databases

Every academic researcher uses online databases these days, but the question is, which ones? PubMed contains more than 23 million citations for biomedical literature, and helps in finding primary sources. I like Proquest and JSTOR, and if you’re not using Google Scholar yet, you should be. Public health lawyers work across both legal and scientific/social scientific databases, so there’s no escaping HeinOnline, Westlaw, and Lexis, particularly given that Google Scholar doesn’t do a great job at finding legal scholarship.

  1. Citation managers

It feels like Endnote has been around since the invention of computers, but it’s being overtaken by more sophisticated citation management software. Zotero has a web application that pulls references directly from online content, meaning that you don’t have to enter details manually (although you should check that it’s collected the right information). Zotero also stores PDFs, images, audio and visual files, in addition to references.  Given the range of programs available, your colleagues should stage an intervention if you’re still using an excel spreadsheet to keep track of references.

  1. File hosting services

When I began my PhD my computer scientist friend advised me to store my research in as many different places as possible – just in case my computer exploded, my USB got stolen, and my house burnt down simultaneously. Fortunately I started my research after cloud storage systems became available, with services such as Dropbox and Google Drive allowing users to upload files onto the internet, synchronise and access files anywhere, and share files with other people. But remember: nothing lasts forever – even Google – and it’s always worth storing important documents in multiple (and offline) locations.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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