This post was written for 23 Things for Professional Development, Thing 14: Zotero / Mendeley / CiteULike
You mean you do it all by hand!?
One thing that surprised me during my graduate trainee year was that hardly any of my fellow trainees had ever used reference management software before. I had assumed that everyone who ever had to write a dissertation or coursework essay at university would have used it. I now know this is not the case. I think perhaps this is a subject thing. I did a science degree and reference managers certainly seem popular with the students at the science library where I did my traineeship. If this is the case I wonder why? Do scientists have more references, do non-scientists have more references in unusual formats which reference managers don’t deal with so well or is it just that there is more awareness of reference managers in science? Or does it depend which university you go to? I’d be interested if anyone has any ideas on the matter or knows of reference managers being popular in other subjects.
Trials and tribulations of reference management
My first experience of reference management was a skills session on EndNote at the beginning of my third year of my undergraduate degree. Interestingly this was given by an academic, not a librarian. As getting EndNote on my laptop would have involved me parting with a hefty sum of money I decided to use EndNote Web (which I thought was freely available until went home for Christmas and found it was asking for my university log in!) for the references I needed for my third year and then fourth year projects.
EndNote Web was not perfect and one day while sat at a library computer getting thoroughly frustrated at the extremely long time it was taking to do something my lovely department librarian showed me Zotero. I tried it out, but didn’t really like the interface so decided to stick with EndNote Web. A decision I was later to regret when less than a week before my fourth year project was due to be handed in EndNote Web’s Cite While You Write (the bit that integrates with MS Word to create in text citations and bibliographies) stopped working and did something very strange to all my citations and my bibliography. I sorted it out in the end via EndNote, but not without further complications and a lot of stress. I haven’t heard of anyone else having similar problems with EndNote Web, and it may have had something to do with my old version of MS Word, but my relationship with EndNote Web was irreparably damaged and I changed allegiance to Zotero.
During my traineeship I used Mendeley for my references I used at work when writing biographies of the people we held archives of, but continued using Zotero to store other references. I used Mendeley because it was the easiest thing to get to work without admin rights on the computer I was using and it did the job. Now I’ve started my MA I’ve had another think about which reference manager I want to use. I’ve settled on Zotero as it’s (currently) freely available so I will continue to be able to use it wherever I end up working in the future and it can import references from the UCL online catalogue and the bibliographic databases I’m most likely to use. Although I did have to spend a couple of hours yesterday unsuccessfully trying to get it to work with OpenOffice (I don’t have MS Office on my laptop) and then giving up and downloading LibreOffice which I have managed to get Zotero to work with.
So, with all the stress and difficulties why do I still bother using a reference manager? My main reason is to keep track of all the things that I’ve read so that I can find them again if I want to reference or re-read them. I can store my references in folders so that I can find everything I read for a particular course in one place, I can add tags to my references which I can then search (one of the tags I use is ‘to read’, which I find very useful), I can add notes to the reference to summarise it, tell me which bit was useful or said something interesting, tell me why I read it, etc. If I had to do it all by hand I just wouldn’t be as organised. Oh, and (when it works) it does make formatting references much easier and quicker.