Still looking for the perfect reference management tool

Workspace 3.0 - Noguchi File by paperbits, on Flickr

I mentioned in my post yesterday that I’m supervising a group of students on an SSC.  I’m introducing the small group to different ways they can use technology to support managing information.  As they’re developing elearning resources I’ve suggested they use a social bookmarking tool to keep track of any creative commons images they might use so that they can give the appropriate attribution.  I’ve shown them both my Diigo and Delicious accounts and posted some links for what’s in my libraries to our G+ community.  I’ve also shared a screencast on reference management tools and wanted to let them have access to the references I have bookmarked but this has proved easier said than done.

Over the past four and a half years I’ve set up accounts on 4 different reference management tools and there are elements of each of them that I like but each have their limitations and I’ve yet to find the perfect tool. I’ll run through the tools I’ve tried and what I like about them and what I think is missing.

I started using CiteULike just over 4 years ago when I started in my current post.  I liked the simplicity of it and the ability to post using a link from my bookmarks toolbar.  What I also liked was that it supported some of the same social bookmarking features as Delicious, namely the ability to

  • see how many other users have bookmarked a paper that you have and then take a look at these users’ other references.  Invariably this has helped me discover other interesting papers that I might not otherwise have come across.
  • subscribe to an RSS feed of another user’s references, again I’ve come across interesting papers in obscure journals that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.
  • easily create a group to share references with colleagues or create a collection that can serve as a signpost to interesting research for students.

However what I didn’t like about CiteULike was that there seemed to be a growing number of references that didn’t pull through and needed me to manually input the key datafields for the paper and I found this a bit frustrating.

I then came across Zotero which worked as a Firefox plugin.  This seemed to pull in far more references automatically without me having to manually key in the data, it also pulled in keywords from articles, which could save me time on tagging.  I also liked that it handled blog posts and other web-based content quite neatly and there was also integration with Word.  I could access my bookmarked references on any browser by logging into my account and I could join groups but the ability to publicly share my references was lacking and I couldn’t see other users’ references or subscribe to a feed of their library.

Then Mendeley came along and the Twitterverse was buzzing about it so I created an account here.  I liked that I could import my CiteULike references and automatically autosave a reference from there too.  I could also autosave from Mendeley to Zotero and so everything was backed up and if one site was down I’d always be able to access my ibrary from one of them.  The other thing about Mendeley which seemed quite neat was that I could drag in a PDF and have this save to a folder on Dropbox and I could access these on my work PC, my MacBook pro at home and on my iPad.  Being able to annotate the PDFs on the Mendeley desktop was also handy before I got an iPad and again the ability to have groups was useful for collaborative writing projects.  There was a bit of a wait for the Word plugin for Mac and when it arrived I thought it was a bit flakey and not as good as the Zotero plugin.  Again no ability to publicly share my library, only the ability to share items with groups.

More recently a group at Oxford have developed Colwiz and I signed up for this soon after it was released.  I prefered the design of this to Mendeley and liked that I could search online directly from the desktop app.  As it was early days there wasn’t a bookmarklet and no support for Word on the Mac.  Colwiz offers a suite of additional project tools to support collaborative research including task management, events, calendars and cloud storage. I didn’t really persist with Colwiz and haven’t looked at it in a while, but a quick look at the Twitter feed indicates there are some interesting announcements on the horizon, so maybe time to revisit it and see what’s new.

I tend to use Zotero the most simply because of the ease of bookmarking references so easily in Firefox in the address bar.  The bookmarlet for Chrome and Safari on the iPad also work really well.  While initially I was quite taken with being able to annotate PDFs in Mendeley I don’t really like reading long papers on my laptop and find it much easier to read them and annotate them on my iPad using GoodReader or iAnnotate.

So I’ve shared a link with my SSC group to my CiteULike library but this isn’t as comprehensive a library as my Zotero library.  So I’m still on the look for the perfect reference management tool, and wonder if one dat it will exist. If Zotero had the Delicious type functionality of CiteULike in being able to publicly share your library and explore other people’s libraries and subscribe to RSS feeds it would be almost be there. Being able to post from Pocket or Instapaper would also be another thing on my reference manegement wishlist.  Anyone know if Zotero, Mendeley or Colwiz have plans to add these Web 2.0 social features?  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d find them helpful if they did.

P.S. A quick update to this post. I received this helpful tweet from William Gunn, head of academic outreach for Mendeley, confiriming that you can publicly share a collection on Mendeley with a public group, which quite handy.

P.P.S. A second quick update.  As these tweets highlight Zotero also supports public groups and you can subscribe to an RSS feed of a group’s library.  In addition users can make their libraries public on Zotero and where that’s the case again you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the library or to feeds for specific keywords.  This looks like a possible solution for me with regards sharing some of my library with SSC students and I’ll have a go at setting this up.

P.P.P.S Third and final update – Mr Gunn has been back in touch to confirm Mendeley public groups also have RSS feeds 🙂
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  paperbits 

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