Zotero, Mendeley and managing my personal information

This week I was tasked with choosing a PIM (Personal Information Management) tool between Zotero and Mendeley.

The jury’s still out for me on this one. It just seems to me that the learning curve is a little steeper than necessary for advanced features with PIM and it might be hard to convince experienced researchers to make the move when they have already developed systems that work for them.

I tried Mendeley over the summer for my term project with my summer class, mostly because, I think at the time, Mendeley had the MS Word plugin that would sync a bibliography for me. If I’m not mistaken, that is something that Zotero does now too. However, I found out that I didn’t actually like the bibliography feature, at least as I was working on an annotated bibliography, because the Mendeley plugin didn’t like that I wanted to “get between” the entries and add an annotation. I love MS Word and consider myself to be an advanced user, but it can be frustrating when the dummy-proof formatting features take over assuming they know what you want. I ended up using the Mendeley bibliography in a separate doc, and then copying and pasting the entries elsewhere so that I could have them and manipulate them. Call me stubborn, but I wasn’t quite ready to hand the control over and didn’t have the time to learn all the fine points on how it actually could have worked for me more efficiently.

My other main frustration with PIMs, and this goes for both Zotero and Mendeley, is that importing something manually is cumbersome and tedious. If the automated importer doesn’t sense the article, you are stuck fixing the metadata. In some situations it’s not a big deal, but alternative sources, like web media–videos, online interviews, etc, maybe me wonder how the PIM can even help if I’m still doing all the work. With Mendeley, it didn’t even always sense the bib data within an article from the UW-Libraries database. I asked myself, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just go back to “my old way” and do “export citation information” in APA format and copy and paste it right into my project document?” For most small research projects, yes, I think it is easier my old way–especially if the alternative is manually entering the metadata. However, I can imagine for a dissertator, PIMs are the WAY. TO. GO.

I know it sounds like I just bagged on Mendeley, so why would I pick it over Zotero now? Truthfully, going into this week, I expected to make a switch to Zotero because I was disappointed in my first impressions of Mendeley. I downloaded Zotero (Mac platform) and did some compare/contrasting. To me, they are almost exactly the same. They look almost the same. I don’t feel like one is more intuitive than the other. I liked that Zotero’s save citation dialog box doesn’t require a click to make it go away like Mendeley does after you save something–but at the same time, I duplicated records more than once with Zotero because I wasn’t watching for the dialog box after I clicked and hit it a second time to be sure.

I also like that Mendeley has a dedicated iOS app, while there are only 3rd party apps for Zotero. I’m not convinced I will use the mobile feature, but it’s nice to know.

The feature that pushes me a little toward the Mendeley side is the “Recommend related documents” button that searches your library and recommends other similar results for you. I could see this as a useful tool when researching to be sure you hadn’t missed anything. If it exists in Zotero, I couldn’t find it. I am still open to using Zotero and I don’t feel like I know how to use the full capacity, especially with annotations, on either, but I figure I should continue to give them a shot.

2 Responses

  1. joeranb October 17, 2013 / 5:22 am

    I am one of the founders of Docear which is a new software for literature management. Today, we released version 1.0 of Docear after a ~2 year beta phase. If you are interested in reference management, you might want to have a look at Docear. The three most distinct features of Docear are:

    1. A single-section user-interface that differs significantly from the interfaces you know from Zotero, JabRef, Mendeley, Endnote, … and that allows a more comprehensive organization of your electronic literature (PDFs) and the annotations you created (i.e highlighted text, comments, and bookmarks).

    2. A ‘literature suite concept’ that allows you to draft and write your own assignments, papers, theses, books, etc. based on the annotations you previously created.

    3. A research paper recommender system that allows you to discover new academic literature.

    And Docear is free and open source and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. More information can be found in our Blog, including a detailed explanation of what makes Docear superior to Mendeley, Zotero, etc. (at least in our opinion 🙂 ). If you don’t like reading, there is also a 6 minute introduction video on our homepage http://www.docear.org 😉

    In case you are using a BibTeX based reference manager such as JabRef (and you don’t want to switch to Docear), you might at least be interested in Docear4Word http://www.docear.org/software/add-ons/docear4word/overview/. Docear4Word allows you to insert references and bibliographies from BibTeX files to MS-Word documents. Hence, it makes writing papers much easier, since e.g. JabRef has no own MS Word add-on.

    Finally, I would like to point you to a recent Blog post I wrote about what makes an evil reference manager. Maybe the post helps you deciding which reference manager to use (even if it’s not Docear). http://www.docear.org/2013/10/14/what-makes-a-really-really-bad-reference-manager/

    • hennebe October 17, 2013 / 8:40 am

      Thanks for the ideas. Right now my biggest problem is making the paradigm shift and actually letting these programs manage for me. I just haven’t integrated them into my academic style yet enough to feel like one out performs another. I’ll keep your suggestions in mind though.

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