I spent the better part of today playing around with bibliographic management tools. At the beginning of the day, I had several (small) EndNote libraries that I’ve been adding to for my PhD as well as a few other projects. I am, however, rather lazy, and I realised this morning that getting things I find on the web into EndNote X3 was far too cumbersome for my liking.
Sure, I could have walked up to campus in the torrential rain (and I’m not exaggerating about the rain, either) to get a copy of X4, which can extract metadata from PDFs. But, you know… lazy (and far too much of a princess to get that wet).
Having watched Howard Rheinghold’s explanation of how he uses “Twitter, search, Diigo, Delicious, DEVONthink, Scrivener to find, refine, organize information –>knowledge“, I started to think that maybe I should be looking for a new tool. While I was pondering downloading a trial of DEVONthink, Kathryn Greenhill tweeted the suggestion that a combination of Mendeley and Zotero, with full text stored in Dropbox, might work. I’m a Zotero fan, but I’ve been worried about scalability and the logistics of using it to manage something as big as a PhD. But essentially, I was already sold on Zotero as a tool. Mendeley, however, I had no experience with, so I decided to download it and have a play.
It was love at first site.
But back a couple of steps… The path to get my data into Mendeley was fairly smooth… I exported my EndNote libraries and then imported them, one-by-one, into Zotero. Then I did a bit of organisation to put my references into collections. After that, I downloaded Mendeley, installed it, signed up for an account, and turned on the function to continuously sync with Zotero. And bingo! All my references magically appeared in Mendeley.
Here’s what made me fall instantly in love with Mendeley:
- The idea of being able to extract metadata from PDF files to populate item information. I say ‘idea’ because in reality, the examples I tried were great big failures, resulting in references that looked nothing like what they should have – wrong author, wrong title, wrong date, wrong publication, wrong topic… My intention had been to then export references created this way to Zotero – another great idea that didn’t work in practice.
- Mendeley prompts you – with an unmissable dialogue box at the top of the data pane – to check and verify references when you import them. Given my experience with the quality of data imported into EndNote, I was really excited to see that new references were flagged to check, and just as importantly for lazy me, that with a single click I could search Google Scholar by title to verify the details. The final win on this front is that any details that aren’t correct automatically get fixed, and voila! You have beautiful data. If the item can’t be found by a title search, you can add the DOI for the item to the DOI field and retrieve the data that way – again, with a single click.
- I really, really like being able to see at a glance what I’ve read and what I haven’t. Mendeley allows you to toggle a small dot beside each title from grey (unread) to green (read). Yeah, I could tag stuff as unread in Zotero, but I know from using this tactic in delicious that I’ll never remember to go back and edit the tags.
- Functionality to view and annotate full text attachments is available in Mendeley – and it’s nice functionality, too. For a blissful couple of hours, I saw myself forsaking my nemesis, the office photocopier, forever.
- Zotero integration means I can continuously download references from Zotero to Mendeley without any effort whatsoever. This appealed to me primarily because I wanted to use Zotero to capture data while trawling the web, and to integrate with Word when I’m writing, but I wanted to use Mendeley to verify data, and view and annotate full text.
Here’s where it all fell to pieces:
- Syncing only works in one direction: Zotero to Mendeley. There’s no functionality in either Zotero or Mendeley to support automatic updates of Zotero. Strike one.
- I kept getting duplicates in my Mendeley library. I puzzled over this for ages, until I realised it was only happening for references that came from Zotero, but which I had edited in Mendeley (to correct errors in the data). Turns out the automatic syncing functionality kept pulling in the references from Zotero, because they didn’t look the same as the references in Mendeley. Strike two. Which leads me to my next point…
- Deduping is tedious. (That’s such a library geek word, isn’t it?!) Identifying and removing duplicate records in Mendeley is an entirely manual process. Find, compare, right click, delete. Repeat. And then repeat again because you forgot to turn off the automatic sync with Zotero. And then repeat again because you turned it back on just to double check your hypothesis. Strike three.
So, my short-lived love affair with Mendeley is over. I’ll watch developments, though, because I’m definitely open to giving it another try if and when an an automatic function for identifying and removing duplicates is added, and Zotero sync becomes a two way street.
The task monster in me feels as though I wasted a day messing about… But as one wise tweep of mind said to me today: I know that part of working with new tools is spending some serious time messing around.
My next challenge will be to have a play with Scrivener and decide if it will work as a repository for my notes, and potentially a tool for writing my whole thesis (and all the other smaller outputs along the way). Part of that task will be working out how Evernote (which I’m using now for note taking and brain storming) and Scrivener will differ in terms of my workflows (aside from the fact that Scrivener is better suited to writing content). As a part time student, I’m going to be working on this beast intensively for periods, and taking chunks of break time while I prioritise teaching and other research commitments. I’ll need to be really organised to manage that. Plus, I want to be able to store content I produce along the way in a manner that makes it easily reusable in different forums – from my proposal, to my confirmation of candidature materials, to journal articles, to the thesis itself. But that is most definitely a challenge for another day.