Software for Research, Part 1: Firefox and Extensions

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Over the next few weeks, I'll be presenting a digest of some essential software for research. As with all researchers, I have my biases. I hope that beyond that, there may be some pearls of usability for people wondering how to solve that problem. So, on to part 1: Firefox and it's extensions.

Why start with Firefox, well it embodies many of the principles that most of the software I present will reflect:

  • free (and open-source)
  • extensible
  • cross platform
  • usable and interoperable

Firefox is also the program that many researchers will find themselves using most, especially as cloud computing becomes the norm (more on that in this series, probably Part 4). The Web is our conduit to research information, collaboration and publication, so not a bad place to start....

In the interests of completeness, I'll spend a little time on describing why Firefox is the browser of choice instead of: lynx, Konqueror, Opera, Safari or IE. It's not the fastest (Opera or Safari holds that title), nor the best for a command line (try lynx), it lacks system integration (konqueror is great in this respect) but it has many advantages over all of these. IE suffers from Microsoft's policy of breaking standards, and Google's privacy policy makes Chrome a non-contender for anyone serious about the value of their data.

So what is so good about Firefox? Its addons of course! Just about any use imaginable for a browser can be realised using the extended features that Firefox offers. Some of these have become essential research tools for thousands of academics, most notably Zotero, an indispensable reference manager built right in to the browser.

Sometimes addons can be difficult to get playing properly with each other and sometimes they break with firefox updates so the following is a guide of some useful addons that work flawlessly together and provide a good research platform. Please feel free to suggest your favourites in the comments:

  • Firefox 4.0.1 with Add-on Compatibility Reporter 0.9
  • Zotero 2.1.8 - more than a replacement for Endnote, it also allows reference sharing and much faster integration with where you find your references in the first place - in the browser. More details in Part 2 of this series.
  • I also add extensions to Zotero: ZoteroQuickLook 1.2.0 and LyZ 2.1.2 for LyX integration
  • Tabgroups Manager - if you love having tens (or hundreds) of tabs open, then keeping your memory and CPU use managable can become an issue, this plugin allows you to suspend and hibernate tab groups which come back after a restart, a fantastic addition which should be a Firefox standard.
  • LibX UniMelb - obviously only for your university but allows Google Scholar results to be tailored to what is in the full-text accessible publications provided by the university, saves a lot of time and integrates well with the Zotero proxy discovery function.
  • FoxyProxy - for accessing web proxies
  • DownloadHelper - great for when you need to download a flash movie for source material
  • DownloadStatusBar - show download progress in the status bar
  • Autopager - essential tool that loads pages automatically rather than having to press "next"
  • FoxySpider (paid) - allows retrieving multiple documents in subdirectories, useful for making a web archive of a site for offline use
  • FireGestures - right click and swipe back to go back etc.
  • Schubert PDF Plugin for inline PDF

Other extensions which may be useful:

  • Lazarus - recovers text from a page that timed out
  • Firebug - a great tool for debugging and checking HTML
  • AdBlock Plus - stops most advertisements loading, why waste bandwidth!
  • NoScript - protects you from malicious scripts
  • DownThemAll - good if you need to download many links from a page
  • Status-4-Evar - if you can't live without the status bar
  • WebDeveloper - a nice way to visualise and manipulate CSS code

With these extensions installed, Firefox becomes a very powerful tool for searching for information and keeping workflows organised and responsive to the area of study as well as saving pages for later review without slowing down too much. Then, of course there are extensions in HTML and other languages, one of which you can see in the form of etherpad as a loaded page.... but more about that later.

Thanks to the many authors of Firefox and its extensions,
Happy researching...

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