For most academics, reference management software is an essential element of their tool kit and performs a number of important roles. When I started writing academic works, a pen and a typing service were coupled with a new technology called Post-its to create copy. How quickly things have moved on. The development of electronically searchable indexes (yes it really was done manually up until the 1980’s) on CD and later online, quickly evolved into fully searchable databases that contain full text downloadable documents. Gone are the days of ordering, and excitedly waiting for, the postal deliver of photo copy of a journal article.

My first foray into reference management software was with the rather enigmatic Procite (no longer supported on the latest operating systems). It had it’s quirks, but survived all the abuse I threw at it during my doctoral studies. With a little hacking I even managed to get it to link to manual scans of documents – downside, everything had to be manually keyed!

The needs it served well were three fold:

1. It provided a safe repository for all my important references.

2. It automatically created a bibliography from inserted citations (using the exciting cite while u write facility).

3. It provided an easy means of retrieval (if not saving) images of journal articles.

I probably would have stuck with Procite for much longer had it been fully supported for later versions of Windows, but beyond XP it seemed to need a never ending stream of patches and hacks to keep it alive. When it was coming to the end of its practical life I looked around to see what else was available and was quite unimpressed. There were free/cheap online tools such as Zotero which had a level of functionality, but not the stability that I wanted. These materials take a long time to build and losing them would be rather painful.  In the end I plumped for EndNote, the proprietary and expensive alternative to Procite (owned by the same people at that point).  The transition was simple, files transferred easily (links to files not so well, but they functioned to a point). EndNote maintained all of the benefits of Procite listed above and added

4. A very comprehensive citation formatting feature.

To be fair Procite had this citation editing feature, but manipulating it was clunky, unintuitive and not always successful.

So why try Mendeley. Well, one of my doctoral students seemed to be getting on well with it and we recently had a visit from colleagues (Kathrin Moeslein & Angelica Bullinger) who were hugely impressed by it, so I gave it a whirl.

To be honest I wasn’t sure what I would find so it was a poke around under the hood to see what it could do and here are my conclusions. In relation to the  existing benefits of EndNote I found:

1. Provides a safe repository. Yes, possibly better. Better simply because there is a Desktop Version of Mendeley which, when linked to the online library (you need to create a free account to see the online library), synchronises a copy of your files in the cloud (but beyond 500MB, which is easy to breach, you need a premium account).

2. Auto creates a bibliogrpahy. Yes, sort of, but see point 4 below.

3. Easy means of full text retrieval. Mendeley trumps Endnote on this front. The interface is clear and obvious. The PDF handling is excellent. As a bonus you can now

3.a. Mark up PDF’s within Mendelay and save your notes and highlights – very useful!

3.b. Add to this much easier means of saving PDF’s and importing citations. There are 8 ways to add documents. The most beautiful of which is to drag and drop the pdf file (or link if not behind a paywall) and Mendelay strips the metadata (assuming it is there – publishers please take note) and automatically creates the reference and saves the files. The one-click web importer is almost as nice and when the full functionality is eventually implemented to allow you to download PDF’s based on your institute licence, it will be a real winner.

4. Citation/reference format editor. This is probably the weakest element of Mendeley. It does have a cite while you write feature which works well, and it does have a capacity to auto generate a bibliography. The problem is that ones that I tested did not generate with the precision necessary for journal submission. The good news is they can be edited in the Citation Style Language (CSL) open standard. The bad news is that for the moment you need to be happy editing XML with a standard text editor which is not for the faint hearted and rather time consuming. The, even more, good news is there is a project now running in Columbia (with Mendelay and funded by the Sloan Foundation) to create a CSL editor for mere mortals.

Mendeley brings along two additional bonuses.

5. Sync with multiple computers. Most academics work on several machines. I work on three machines, a work desktop and a home desktop for processing power and screen size, and a laptop for portability (an an iPad for ultra portability, and an iphone for ultra-ultra portability). Mendeley seems to play nicely across them all. Importantly, although the internet interface is really useful, the desktop version will run stand-a-lone of there is no internet connection making it possible to work on those long flights.

6. Collaborate. This I think is the real jewel in the Mendeley crown. While EndNote web takes a shot at collaboration, Mendeley hits a bulls-eye. Share a library with colleagues or your doctoral students, pass notes, messages, and keep each other paper libraries up to date. I haven’t had time to fully test this yet, but this looks like a game changer.

There are other additional benefits such as the paper search features, the ability to join groups, create an online profile and many others. This is after all the first real attempt at a Web 2.0 reference management software suite. This has the sense of a community that is trying to build a useful tool set with some core principles that ensure you can free your data when you want to. It is good to see this is still alive several years after the business funding arrived.

So am I going to switch over. Yes, and no!

Yes I am going to use it for its reference management and collaboration features. The growing ease with which it will managed saving articles seems a real winner. However, it is certainly not ready to replace Endnote as a citation tool when writing articles, unless you want to manually edit the bibliography (I’d rather leave academia!). So for the moment I will export from Mendeley and import into trusted old Endnote for writing. It is an extra step, but quick and easy. Roll on the CSL editing interface so we can complete the revolution.


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