Privacy in research: Considerations for academic students and researchers


I am currently a student/researcher at a university outside of the US and I was wondering what privacy considerations there are for conducting academic research and what tools to use.

I am aware of the issues in the US regarding monitoring software and exploration of students data; however, I have been fortunate enough to be not effected by this. This post focused more about the different tools people use for their academic research and what privacy consideration there are. I am going to share my experience, findings and questions in three areas: literature research, collaborative work, writing code.

In my experience, university are acceptance of students using alternative operating systems like Linux, however they definitely push mainly Windows focused software. I have being using a Ubuntu-variant for most of my academic path. Setting up a Windows VM can be benifical.

Literature research

How do people feel about using Google Scholar? In my personal life, I avoid Google complete (except for YouTube) with a de-google phone, etc. However I have found that the Google Scholar website has fewer trackers than alternative such as Web of Science and Scopus. Personally, I would not touch anything that comes from Elsevier, since they are one of the most evil companies and actively lobbying the open access movement. See: Elsevier - Wikipedia

Furthermore, Google Scholar there is no need for a university account to access it and therefore provides a valuable tool for people outside of academia to do their own research.

I applaud the effort of Sci-Hub, however it is not suitable for finding new papers.

Collaborative work

I would assume that most universities have a subscription to Office365. Therefore your university email address runs through Outlook and online meeting will be held in MS Teams or Zoom. This is hard to avoid completely. I try to interact with Office365 through Thunderbird but the experience is far from perfect. Some free and paid plug-ins can help. Personal I embrace tools like Slack and MS Teams, because it reduce the number of emails in my inbox and I find communications more effect. However, our IT department racks down on the use of Slack and force MS Teams. From a security standpoint they might have a point.

An area, where I could break away from the Office365 was with Overleaf. It is powered by open-source software and it beats sending back and forth Word documents with track changes. The only downside is that all parties need to know how to use LateX; however, they added a Rich text editor mode. Personally, I am sold on using Latex for writing papers.

Beside writing papers, I also have to write code which I will get to in the next section. I am no R or Python wizard by an means and therefore, I rely on asking other people for help. Sending pieces or code in email or attaching the script itself, often gets flagged by Outlook as security risk. Therefore, I learned how to use git, which is create. Personally, I am happy that my collaborators use GitLab rather than GitHub.

What are other peoples experiences? Any other tools for collaboration they found to work within the academic context?

Writing code

Since I started to write my own code, I really appropriate it when researchers provide their code or even full packages along side peer-reviewed paper. It saves a lot of time of reinventing the “wheel”.

When it comes to where you write your code in, I have not found big differences in terms of privacy. Maybe, you noticed that I prefer to stay away from Microsoft produces, if I can help it.

The IDE I use are RStudio and PyCharm. I have no complains about RStudio and I believe that Jetbrains (the company behind PyCharm) has done a lot of good for the developer community and their products work very well. However, I do dislike the amount of features that are missing in their PyCharm community edition compared to the professional edition for which you need an account (which is annoying by itself).

What are your opinions, is Jetbrains trustworthy or are there better alternatives out there?

What are your experience as students or researchers, which tools are you using? Is it worth the effort to be privacy conscious if your aim is a open-access product (paper).

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You seem to have everything figured out.

My only recommendation is the VSCodium code editor. It is based on Microsoft’s VS Code but with no trackers. Another IDE is Atom by GitHub. Both are good and open source so you could try both and see what you prefer

I don’t think you know that Github has deprecated Atom in favor of VSCode.
VSCodium is just VSCode with telemetry turned off.

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As a fellow researcher I would recommend you to just focus on getting stuff done by compartmentalizing your work stuff from personal lives.

Yeah I think they are trustworthy tbh. I don’t know of any nuisance they’ve created.

That is a good point, something I spend too much time playing around with alternative software/tools instead of working.
Good to hear that there are no known concerns with Jetbrains.