Reference Management, Linux, and the Cloud

I recently looked into citation management tools for an article I’m working on.

About citation management tools.

So the whole thing was very meta.

Even though I run Windows 7 at work, I made sure I looked at free cross-platform tools. I wound up selecting Mendeley, Zotero, and citeulike.

I’ll post a link to the article once it’s available in a few months, but for now, I wanted to talk about these tools from a technical standpoint.

All three tools pretty much do the same thing. They allow users to capture book and article metadata and export the data in a bibliographic format, like MLA, APA, Chicago, ASA, etc.

They also allow users to organize their research, so all of their articles on a given topic are in one place. All three support tagging and have some social sharing aspects.

Technically, all three tools are different, though. Mendeley is a standalone client. Zotero is a Firefox extension. And citeulike is entirely web-based.

Mendeley is pretty robust, allowing you to organize web-based files as well as local ones. And the client has a web sync. But the sync didn’t work horribly well for me. Metadata would get corrected at work, but it didn’t seem to make it to my home set-up. But I was also syncing my data to Zotero and I wonder if there were just so many versions of things floating around, that Mendeley got confused.

One nice thing about Mendeley, though, is that they have a Linux client, so using it is really no big deal. It installs like any program, once you add the Mendeley repository.

I’ve played with Zotero on and off for years. Like Mendeley, there’s a web sync option, so you can access your research across computers. It works well but the Firefox dependency is a real killer. I don’t use Firefox very often and I don’t want to have to switch browsers when I’m doing research.

citeulike didn’t knock me out. It’s tough to get it to effectively grab metadata. It seems like at least 75% of the time, I had to export citations in BibTeX, a standard citation format designed for LaTeX, and then manaually import the BibTeX into citeulike.

But in the end, I’m sticking with citeulike because it’s web-based. I just install a browser button into ANY browser, and I can grab (some) articles relatively painlessly.

Mendeley has an easy browser button, too, but it still requires the client to export your work into a bibliographic format.

So even though Mendeley is easily the most robust of the three tools (you can view and annotate PDFs using it), citeulike is the easiest to implement. So I’m sticking with citeulike for now.

Zotero is working on a standalone client, and while I really love the ease with which Zotero grabs metadata, a client just feels like a lot of work. It’s something else that needs to be updated. It’s something else that needs to be opened. And it’s something else that needs to be installed.

Given that I usually print articles and keep them in folders, annotating them by hand, citeulike seems to be the easiest way to keep track of my research and generate semi-clean bibliographies.

Also, some institutions (including my own) provide access to RefWorks. RefWorks is pretty nice, but they only have browser buttons for Internet Explorer and Firefox. Like with Zotero, that’s kind of a deal killer for me, even though RefWorks has some nice functionality, like using a URL resolver to link to subscription material automatically.

I appreciate that Mendeley took the time to develop a Linux client and I feel like I should support that, but the idea of a standalone client feels like overkill. Having said that, I might eventually check out some Linux citation management clients, just to make sure I’m really not missing out on anything. Referencer is well-reviewed but looking for a new maintainer. And JabRef also looks interesting.

Committing to a reference management tool represents a new research work flow for me, but I’m hoping having everything in one place will eventually pay off for me.

But if nothing else, I’m learning lots about BibTex.