Monday 30 July 2012

Thing 14: Zotero / Mendeley / CiteULike

When I wrote my masters dissertation I typed out my bibliography reference by reference. I worked through the whole text too, slotting in the references, remembering where I’d referenced the same thing twice – the whole 15,000 words of it.

I don’t say this in a “we had it tough back in my day, you lot, you don’t know you’re born” sort of way. I say it because I didn’t have any alternative (that I was aware of).  It was time consuming and error prone – who would chose that?

There are so many tools out there these days that there’s no reason for anyone -  student, academic, researcher, would-be librarian  – anyone to have to do that anymore.  

For those of us still in the throes of writing essays, or perhaps writing articles for professional journals, picking one piece of software and running with it makes life a lot easier. But looking beyond our own needs to consider the needs of the library users we support, being aware of a number of different tools is always an advantage (and a big selling point on a CV). Being able to explore the pros and cons of different ways of achieving the same goal helps others decide which is the tool for them.

Managing information in this way, and helping others to do so too demonstrates our worth in a new way, and is a very useful skill. We’re not just there to help people find information, we can help them manage it to more easily achieve their goal. (I’m mostly thinking of these tools in an academic or research environment, but please give me examples their use in public libraries, business  information centres – anywhere!)

There are 4 essential elements that you need in any reference management system. The ability to:
  • import references from a number of difference sources (eg websites, library catalogues, bibliographic databases etc)
  • manage and/or edit the references once they’re in the system, and add manually any references that you cannot find online
  • export references into the document that you’re writing, either as a single bibliography, or individually, often called “cite while you write” which generates a list of references.
  • format the bibliography according the referencing style of your choice, and re-format if/when necessary

There are some other “bells and whistles” which might be nice. The ability to:
  • share references with colleagues, supervisors, co-authors
  • attach the text of the article to the reference, so you can manage the full-text documents as well as the references
  • find full text of the articles in your list of references (particularly relevant in academic libraries)
  • manage your full-text articles- perhaps by ensuring that file names are consistent,
  • detect and delete duplicates - if an article is important, you may find it more than once - but you don’t want more than one entry in your list of references.

There are many commercial products out there – Endnote, Reference Manager, RefWorks and Papers  are just 4 examples. Those of us working in higher education may already have access to one or more of these. But there are also some free tools which are available open source, and so accessible to anyone (so long as you’ve got the rights to download software onto your computer!)

There’s a comparison table in Wikipedia and Martin Fenner produced a useful comparison between 8 different tool.

Of the many possibles, we’re going to look at 3 free ones:
Zotero, Mendeley and CiteULike.

Thing 14a – Zotero –

Zotero is an open source product that started life as a plug-in for Mozilla Firefox but in its 3.0 version is now available as a standalone which is compatible with Chrome and Safari
A useful video which demonstrates Zotero is available from their front page, and rather than re-invent the wheel, I suggest you watch this

Zotero is free, but you can get extra storage space and more flexibility for a monthly subscription if you need it.

I think it’s a great, simple to use product which allows easy importing of references from a lot of sources – check if the ones you use regularly are covered:

Zotero also encourages collaboration by providing a social networking element to their site - you can create groups ( private or public) where you can share your reference lists - a bit like delicious.

Thing 14b – Mendeley –
Mendeley is another product which requires a download, but this time it’s a desktop feature, rather the forcing you to one particular browser.  Like Zotero, there is a free version of Mendeley, but more features and increased storage are available if you chose to subscribe.
There’s some great introductory videos available, plus loads of supporting documentation.

One of the nicest features, is that if you’re starting off with a desktop or folder full of PDFs, there is a “watched folder” feature that you can point Mendeley towards, and it extracts metadata from the PDF files and populates your Mendeley library automatically. This is great if you/your library user has a great morass of files they want to organise retrospectively - and I’ve never seen a room of researchers go quiet so quickly as when you show them this feature, plus the one that renames the files in a tidy and consistent way (really very impressive!)

There’s also a PDF editor function within Mendeley, so you can “scribble” on the full-text articles (though you can get this functionality without by using PDF-XChange)

Mendeley has the added bonus that when you synch the web version of Mendeley, the PDF (if you’ve attached it) will go into the cloud too, so you can access your full-text articles wherever you are.

The group/social networking function in Mendeley takes things a step further, by allowing you to set up a closed group where collabators can share the full-text articles, not just the references.

Mendeley also has a very nice iPad or iPhone app which means you can always keep up with your reading and keep adding to your reference list.

Thing 14c– CiteULike
CiteULike is a like delicious  but for articles rather than websites. So it’s not strictly comparable with zotero and mendeley, but still an interesting tool.
There’s a nice tour of citeulike by Alan Cann : 

It’s a great site for sharing references (very useful for many academics who work collaboratively). It’s easy to gather references into citeulike using the browser button (similar to the functionality of delicious) and there is a massive bonus that you can upload PDFs to attach to the reference – since there is no desktop element this means you can access your documents and references from any computer, any time. You can share your library of references, or keep them private as you see fit.

If you chose to make your library public, just like delicious, you can see if anyone else has this paper in their library – ie who is reading what you’re reading. This might give you clues as to who your competition is, or who potential collaborators are.

But the big down side (I think) is that there is no cite while you write functionality – you can export the references in a single bibliography, in a range of difference referencing styles, but not add references through a document. (but since I don’t think it’s designed to do this, so not a fair criticism).

Thing to do
For this week’s Thing, I’d like you to explore and play with at least one (or more if you’re feeling enthusiastic and have time) of these tools how could it help you achieve some of your own goals? How could your new skill help you improve the support you offer your library users?

If you’re already using one or several of these tools, please share how you’re using them. 
If you are running courses, who are they for? What format do these courses take? Does this service help to change perceptions of the library service?


  1. Fallen at an early hurdle on this one I'm afraid! Have downloaded the Zotero software and on watching the introductory video on the website, I see a nice little book symbol appears in the URL address bar which you click on in order to download the reference. But when I try to follow suit, there is no book symbol in my URL address bar. Anyone got an idea what's going wrong? I'm off to have a glass of wine and watch dvd in the meantime...Thanks for any help!

    1. Hi Katrina,
      What are you trying to add? The icon only magically appears in some places I'm afraid. To see how it works when it's possible, try searching for. Book in the Cambridge catalogue, I think it also works on Amazon but cn't chek on this machine I'm afraid. Let us know how you get on!

    2. Thanks Niamh. Have opened Cambridge library catalogue in Chrome, found a book. No little book sign in address bar, next step seems to be 'Export format' and the options it gives are, for example, Endnote citation and others.

    3. Ah, I see, I've only used it with the Firefox plugin so am not familiar with how it works with Chrome. Did you download the standalone version and the connector for Chrome? I'll put a call out on Twitter to see if anyone else has been using Zotero with Chrome.


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