Reference management for the rest of us

Reference management for the rest of us

I've been recently working for the University, and must admit I was quite surprised about the academic world. I've usually worked as a freelancer, in mostly real-world applications of technology and design, but these guys are disconnected from the outside world. They are always talking about concepts, discussing abstract thoughts, and also worried about the dirty details of being state employees (that's the case here in Spain). One of the issues in their world that are new to me, is what I would call "the research cloud", a complex area mainly concerned with being original and deep, worried on how to obtain funds, and I would say almost obsessed with stuff to put in your résumé.

One of the main ingredients for academic research profiles, or résumés, is references. These valuable assets are hard to manage, because formats are so changing, and sources so unlike, that the only way to prevent becoming crazy is using a robust reference management software.

In my recent incursion in the University, I was introduced to RefWorks, and then recalled my brother using EndNote. These are probably the biggest competitors in the professional Reasearch scenario, but they are expensive and probably an overkill for a freelance guy or an independent researcher. If this is your case, you might like to follow on and check the result of my own experience with these tools.

In the past few weeks, I've been testing the following tools:

1. CiteUlike.org, a very nice online database for references, capable of exporting many different formats, but with no integration for MS Word or Open Office. This is important if you're going to use the references with the ability to eventually change formats and/or add items. Bibsonomy.org is a similar tool, broader in applications, but even less powerful in reference formatting.

2. Mendeley.com represents a step further in formatting, with an accurate result, and supposedly offering a Word plugin, but I couldn't manage to install it. The browser tool to fetch references is a neat feature, and the standalone application a great piece of software, but I'm sorry, I needed the Word plugin. Besides this fact, Mendeley also uses a central server to store all your references, and if you reach the storage limit (big enough for me) then you have to start paying a monthly fee.

3. Scholar's Aid and Bibus are two cute little gadgets that could do the job, but they spend a lot of resources in doing more things, while they forget to focus on robustness and practicity. The quitting reason in both cases was the inability to import and export correctly. The Word integration is quite impressive in Scolar's Aid, but not very flexible, while Bibus didn't integrate very well in general.

4. Zotero.org is the most similar to Mendeley: it uses a local utility (in this case under the shape of a Firefox plugin), a Word / Open Office plugin, and a central server with a storage limit for free use. The mainly difference is it works. The Word plugin is simply great, easy to use and very powerful, allowing you to format references as footnotes or endnotes, and allowing to reformat lists in any desired format.

Working in "the cloud" is good if you use different computers in different places and you want a single consistent reference database.

The result of all this is I'm using Zotero, and feel very happy about it.