23 Things: Thing 14 – Zotero, Mendeley, citeulike

One of my lecturers recommended Zotero, but it never worked for me. It kept crashing, wouldn’t play nice with my Mac and the Mac:Office software, and was generally not very usable. And if I changed computers, everything would be gone because it’s tied to one particular computer. Worse, it’s tied to one particular browser, so if Firefox decides to go haywire and freeze up all the time (as it did at one point, with one particular release) then it doesn’t matter if it’s the best research tool in the universe because you can’t access it.

At their most simple, literature/research management tools are databases, indexes of things you read. Besides fields for the standard bibliographic information, you maybe need a field for notes and good compatibility with the program you’re using to write your research paper/dissertation and a choice of reference formats so you can import references in the format you need. Personally, I wrote both my dissertations pretty much without using literature management tools—the first because it proved impossible to get LaTeX to play nice with MLA reference formats, the second because it was pretty much what I was used to, and because the number of references wasn’t unmanageable.

But I digress. So, we’re looking for a service that can do those things I just described, and that is web-based so you can use it on different computers.

Mendeley seems to be better in that respect, and it can be used on mobile devices as well, which is great. I used to use Papers on my Mac, which was a very similar tool—basically something to manage the library of PDFs you have on a computer. I’ve played around with it a bit and if I was to do research again, I think I’d definitely go for it. I am, despite being a “millennial”, very much a tactile, paper-based person when it comes to writing and research, but much of the rational behind that is precisely that paper still offers me things that I can’t do on a computer—like put sticky notes in books, scribble notes in the margins, etc. If I can do that directly on a PDF, great. Zotero was supposed to be able to add citations from websites; a functionality, however, that was working inconsistently at best for me. It remains to be seen if Mendeley does better in that respect. But all in all, it looks like a nice tool that could come in handy.

I’m not a fan of citeulike, much like I’m not a fan of delicious. Because in my experience, it’s very easy to just save everything with a click or two, but then most things, you never look again a second time. So yes, it’s useful, but you need to use it correctly. Again, what I would want from a literature management tool most of all is having one tool that keeps my library straight; to have everything in one place. It’s great that there is such a variety of tools out there and I’m sure different people pick different tools for different reasons, but once I pick a system, it has to be one that I’m likely to stick with. As said above, Mendeley seems like the best candidate at this point in time, but by the time I get to do research again, this may have changed.

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