Writing a dissertation in our high-tech age offers scholars aids and tools which they have never had before. From organizational, motivating, and word-building apps to dictionary, bibliography building and collaborative websites, free online resources can do just about everything except write the dissertation for you. So, bring your creativity and knowledge and let these free research tools assist with every step of writing your dissertation from finding the right word to cleaning up a bibliography.

Table of Contents

1. Docear

Docear, according to docear.org “helps you organizing, creating, and discovering academic literature.” With high ratings from academicians around the world, docear offers many features including the following:

  • Single-Section User-Interface – An organizational tool which allows researchers to sort documents into related categories. This handy tool also allows for the sorting of annotations including comments and highlighted texts. Annotations of multiple documents can be viewed at one time across multiple categories.
  • Literature Suite Concept – Docear combines several tools into one versatile application. The literature suite concept which Docear offers allows you to draft papers, assignments and theses directly in Docear as well as copy references directly into a draft.
  • Recommender System – This system recommends new literature in your personal study. Based on information input, Docear tailors new literature to information and research requirements.

2. Google Scholar

Familiar to the google user and relatively easy to use, Google Scholar is one of the simpler, free tools available for researchers. Google Scholar allows users to locate books, articles, conference proceedings and other materials on a multitude of topics. Some helpful aspects of Google Scholar include:

  • The ability to see articles related to your topic of study as well as how many times articles have been cited and by whom. Article citations are provided in a number of styles. Links to books and articles can be displayed.
  • Articles and citations can be saved for future use.

Although Google Scholar is a helpful resource, results are not always limited to peer reviewed articles and texts. Results for scholarly writing are left for the user/researcher to evaluate.

3. Bibme

A bibliography resource, bibme is an online tool designed specifically for bibliographies. A free tool, bibme allows researchers to search a database of entries to find sources cited and autofill information. Manual entries allow students the ability to use physical sources as well. Other aspects of bibme include:

  • “Citation Guide” to assist in citing work properly
  • Instruction in MLA, APA and Chicago formatting
  • A free account in order to save bibliographies

Bibme also checks papers for grammar, unintentional plagiarism, sentence structure, style and punctuation.

4. Scrivener

Although Scrivener is not technically free, the program does offer a free trial and it is also relatively cheap at only $19.99 as a one-time fee for each feature. Scrivener is specifically designed to help students, writers and novelists to find assistance in proofreading. Features of Scrivener include:

  • Enabling of multiple people to add annotations, comments and insert images etc. into one document
  • Allows businesses to set targets for words or characters
  • Color-coded labels on specific functions
  • Progress-tracking on revisions

Scrivener is highly rated by a number of computer systems and companies. It is also highly rated and regarded by scholars and students. With an editor which is similar to a word processor, users find it familiar and easy to use. Other features, such as a “corkboard” at which to post, compare and contrast notes, formatting which can be preset, the ability to easily import other documents and many other features make Scrivener one of the best writing assistant programs available.

5. Etherpad

According to etherpad.org, “etherpad is a highly customizable open source online editor providing collaborative editing in really real-time.” Collaboration is one of the strong points of etherpad, allowing friends and colleagues to write on the same document simultaneously. Plugins allow users to customize etherpad to suit individual preferences and needs. Etherpad is highly rated for:

  • Providing access to data through well-documented API
  • Support for import/export to data exchange formats
  • Simplicity and usability
  • Time slider – enables all participants to keep track of changes within a pad throughout a period of time.

Etherpad’s collaborative capabilities are functional through its powerful “pad” feature. The pad, once set up, generates a URL link which can be shared with others. According to etherpad.org, any publicly available server from around the world can be used to install Etherpad.

6. Cambridge Dictionary

Gone are the days of bulky dictionaries on the desk, let alone stacks of language dictionaries, a thesaurus and grammar aids. The online Cambridge dictionary combines all of these on one website along with a whole lot more. Features of the Cambridge dictionary online include:

  • Database of over 2 billion words
  • Real-life examples showing how grammar is used
  • Clear explanations for over 500 topics
  • Spelling, punctuation and word formation information
  • Advice on how to use conversational English
  • Translation from and to English from and to numerous other languages

Dictionary definitions in the Cambridge Dictionary include definitions and explanations in English, a Learner’s Dictionary, Essential British English and Essential American English. Dictionary Plus also includes free community word lists as well as grammar and image quizzes which also generate personalized word lists.

Far more than just a dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary grants skills that extend from learning the names of street food in Bangkok to improving descriptive language all at a student’s fingertips.

7. Lexipedia

As a sort of visually-oriented thesaurus, Lexipedia color codes words which students type according to their type of speech and the relationships of those word to other words. Complete definitions are granted by hovering over words. For visual learners, Lexipedia makes it easy to find exact words for papers, theses and other writing projects. Lexipedia runs in English, Spanish, German, French, Dutch and Italian.

Especially handy for researchers, is the research tab which outlines the background of each word, giving more extensive information and causes or classifications of the word. For example, “back pain” is classified according to different types of pain, and Lexipedia also gives causes of back pain, risk factors and diagnoses.

Like a Wikipedia article oriented more around the origin of the word but also the meaning, history, syntax, word formation and more, Lexipedia is a great resource for scholars of all ages and levels, even on the doctoral level.

8. Habitica

Ok, it really is a game. It may be free and it may even help with writing a dissertation (which is why it’s included here) but Habitica is not only for the scholarly. According to one reviewer, the game eventually kind of maxes itself out, which may make it perfect for a dissertation project since those should be relatively short.

On Habitica, users set up tasks, usually everyday tasks, but why not a dissertation? After the tasks are completed in real time, users can check them off earning Experience and Gold. With Gold, users can buy equipment and custom rewards. Experience levels characters up and unlocks content such as quests, skills and even pets.

Habitica can be used in a team or group setting which could make it perfect for doctoral students. Staying accountable to other grad students/dissertation writers could make you and your colleagues into record breaking dissertation completers. Well, maybe not, but it might help.

Dissertation check lists which start with goals like completing the dissertation proposal, continue with chapter completions and revisions and end with the defense and final approval can be entered into Habitica making the process of writing a dissertation a whole lot more fun.

9. Trello

Trello may be one of the more popular online tools for organized collaboration and project management. Starting with a “Trello board, lists and cards” and expanding through more features and customization, Trello streamlines teamwork.

According to a post on the Writing and Learning Center at the University of North Carolina, Trello is an excellent organizational tool for student writers. According to the writing center coach who authored the article, Trello is an especially helpful tool for writing long projects. The author points out that writing for long projects is a process with multiple steps. Picking a topic, researching, outlining and writing/re-writing drafts are all a part of the writing process.

Turning the large project into smaller projects is where Trello comes in.

Trello uses lists and cards as a sort of white board to create the building blocks of organizing a paper or project. Your writing project grows from this foundation with tools to assist with various aspects of completing your project including:

  • Assignments
  • Timelines
  • Productivity Metrics
  • Calendars

10. CamScanner

CamScanner is a free online tool which allows users to scan, edit and store documents and contents. Considered one of the best mobile scanning apps, CamScanner can be very useful for those who are writing dissertations or other research projects. According to camscanner.com, camscanner allows for “accurate text extraction with one key (OCR) and supporting conversion of various formats (including PDF, Word, Excel, PPT and image).

Some features available with CamScanner are:

  • File management over multiple devices including computers, tablets and phones
  • Multiple channel file sharing
  • HD Scanning – CamScanner cleans up the background on cellphone generated pics to generate optimal modes of imaging.
  • All Round Conversion – this tool allows accurate text extraction with one key (OCR). It also supports the conversion of formats including PDF, Word, Excel, PPT and image.
  • Edit files in PDF form by merging, splitting, editing and adding a signature

With over 700 million downloads of CamScanner, it is commonly used around the globe as a research tool of choice.

11. Zotero

Zotero is a highly rated easy to use online tool that assists the collection, organization, citation and sharing of research. Students have been using Zotero successfully to aid them in their dissertation writing for many years. The program has become more streamlined and remained just as successful now as it was when it was launched in 2006.

With the ability to create references and bibliographies in tandem with any text editor and even within Word, LibreOffice and Google Docs, Zotero can format work to match any style guide or publication. Zotero has the capability of supporting over 9,000 citation styles.

Other features of Zotero include:

  • Optional synchronization of data across devices
  • Tracking notes, bibliographic and files and keeping them up to date
  • Access of research, through sync, from any web browser
  • Collaborative bibliographies – Zotero can be shared with as many people as you like with no cost
  • Independent and nonprofit – Zotero has no financial interest in private information

12. Open Office

OpenOffice, according to openoffice.org “is the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more.” Available in multiple languages and effective on all common computers, OpenOffice is the free office software of choice for many students and researchers.

Data can all be stored in one place in an international open standard format with OpenOffice. Also, the program can read and write files from various common office software programs.

OpenOffice is used by:

  • Governments
  • Education
  • Businesses
  • Not for profits
  • IT Businesses
  • F/OSS advocates

Lastly, Apache OpenOffice is under the Apache 2.0 License making it available for any purpose whether it be public administration, educational, commercial or domestic.

13. LyX

LyX is a processing program for documents that enables a structured approach to writing documents rather than simply being appearance oriented.

LyX is designed specifically for structured documents such as books, theses and academic articles making it ideal for dissertation writers. With a fully integrated equation editor, LyX produces and approach that “results in a world-class support for creation of mathematical content.” However, Lyx can also be used very effectively for film scripts, theater plays or novels

Some of the features of Lyx include:

  • Math/Science features
  • Structured document creation
  • Graphics/tables
  • Internationalization
  • Document formats
  • Usability/user interface
  • Document management

14. Tomboy

Tomboy for Windows is a free app to help students and others organize their work. Tomboy is considered quite powerful for a desktop application and is useful for combining notes and ideas into a coherent whole. A linking system helps the app to organize your thoughts and ideas.

Links in Tomboy can be added and changed to expand your original ideas. Notes can be created and accessed by clicking on the Tomboy app. Also, a Table of Contents keeps track of all your notes in chronological order. Automatic spellcheck as well as easy accessibility, plugins supports and link notes using hyperlinks are other positive aspects of Tomboy.

15. Jarte

Jarte, according to jarte.com is a:

  • free word processor based on the Microsoft WordPad word processing engine built into Windows.
  • fast starting, easy to use word processor that expands well beyond the WordPad feature set.
  • small, portable, touch enabled word processor whose documents are fully compatible with Word and WordPad.

Jarte prides itself on being quick and nimble, it takes up very little space on a PC, and it’s display is well-suited to small screen PCs. Jarte is easily run from a flash drive or DropBox folder making it a portable word processor.

Other features of Jarte include:

  • Screen Reader Friendly
  • Stable WordPad Editing Engine
  • Completely Free
  • Easy access to history

According to a review by PC World Magazine:

“It’s one of life’s little ironies that in a country with free speech, a program called Word costs over a hundred dollars. Fortunately, we also have Carolina Road Software and their free-of-charge word processor, Jarte.”

16. Ottobib

OttoBib is a free online bibliography and citation tool which allows writers to cite books using their International Standard Book Number. Multiple ISBNs can be cited through OttoBib as long as they are separated with commas. Citation styles supported by OttoBib inlcude MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, BibTeX and Wikipedia.

Some features of OttoBib are:

  • The enabling of eLearning content developers to reference content exclusively from the ISBN number of a book.
  • Add-on that gives users the ability to create citations from the web browser of their choice.

Although OttoBib is simple to use, it also lacks the more sophisticated tools of other online citation generators. However, OttoBib is completely free and doesn’t require a premium subscription to use. OttoBib is especially helpful in the area of book sources.

17. GoBiblio

Another free online resource especially for the creation of bibliographies is GoBiblio. GoBiblio was designed to assist writers by saving time and energy in studying manuals and generating their bibliography for them. Formats that can be used on GoBiblio’s user friendly website are:

  • Book
  • Section in a book
  • Journal Article
  • Magazine Article
  • Newspaper Article
  • Website

Writers may input information according to the style of their choice, include or exclude advanced web details, and produce a polished bibliography with little effort. With a simple but helpful section with advice and information on producing a bibliography, GoBiblio is a perfect source for beginning writers but can also be used by accomplished scholars as well.

18. LazyScholar

According to lazyscholar.org, LazyScholar “finds free scholarly full texts, metrics, and provides quick citation and sharing links automatically.” LazyScholar includes many useful features including:

  • Automatic Full Text Search – Lazy Scholar searches scholarly articles for free full texts. Integration with a library is also possible through Lazy Scholar to find full texts even when away from the library.
  • Metrics – Various citation metrics are available through Lazy Scholar including Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic, Web of Science, Journal rank and Altmetric among others.
  • Quick Citation – pre-formed citations are available on Lazy Scholar in over 900 citation styles.
  • New Recommendations – Lazy Scholar helps students to find out their favorite topics and also scans listings in order to present and suggest new ideas and papers.
  • Search History – Lazy Scholar offers an interface to save writer’s history.
  • Extractions – Lastly, Lazy Scholar has the capability of extracting PICO information, abbreviations, and references from PDFs and non-PDFs.

19. Ozdic

A great online dictionary for those who are writing a dissertation in their second language (way to go!) is Ozdic. Ozdic is a dictionary/collocation tool that is an excellent resource for postgraduates that need to go beyond a dictionary to find the best combinations and juxtapositions of English words even in a specialized field.

Ozdic gives scholars and writers the ability to search in their collocations dictionary, specifically search for nouns, dictionary nouns, pressure nouns, knowledge nouns and more.

Free and easy to use, Ozdic allows users to plug a word into their simple search engine. Ozdic then generates all of the various uses of that word along with its synonyms and definitions, how the word fits in various contexts, with a noun, with a preposition or in a phrase. Ozdic gives English in Context, making the use of particular words much more accurate and direct.

20. SpellChecker

Even the most careful and accomplished writers need to carefully check their work for spelling mistakes. Spellchecker.net is a free online tool that allows students and writers to check their grammar and spelling immediately. A free online service, SpellChecker conveniently spell checks writing with only a single click.

Users of SpellChecker can copy and paste their text into the spell checker site for free grammar and spell check capability. English spelling and grammar are fixed easily and simply with SpellChecker’s simple to use program. A free thesaurus as well as dozens of other language options are also available through SpellChecker. Both Basic and Advanced Checks are offered through spellchecker.net.