Reference managers

Reference managers

I’ve devoted scant resources to evaluating reference managers, which is unfathomable given a good deal of my time is involved in organising information. Over the years I have wandered from one to the other, and not been happy with any of them. The free ones all seemed buggy. The ones that cost money, work AND have heaps of delightful features fail me when I move on from the host institution willing to pay for them.

My requirements for a reference manager don’t seem outrageous – all platforms, cloud based with desktop backup, drag and drop, bibliography generator, browser plugin. The kicker seems to be, at this time, is that I’m a Google docs user when I’m not forced into Microsoft Land by colleagues. Hopefully that will change and totally date this blog article, but at the moment, it is what it is.

Along the way I’ve tried a few. To be fair, I never really RTFM, if there is one, which is no reflection on the developer but does make me one of the cool kids. I do however resort to it when I meet a roadblock, which is very PBL of me. I’ve wandered into Endnote, Mendeley, ReadCube, Paperpile and Zotero. I did try very, very hard to like the freebie Colwiz but couldn’t get it to work even after contacting their support.

So…I begrudgingly went back to Endnote and although the learning curve was a bit steep (probably because I just didn’t want to be there), it worked for me…mostly. However – it didn’t like Google docs at all, but would permit me to drag citations into the document as rich text and then at the end, I could convert to to a Word doc and replace the entries with properly formatted citations and generate the bibliography. If I wanted to edit it, I needed to go back to Google docs. This made me grumpy but compared favorably to my doctoral days when I used a stone tablet and chisel.

I decided to revisit Zotero. It sounded like something I could use – free, opensource, drag and drop into Google docs, without the need to convert to Word afterwards. So far…it is all these things and more. The Chrome browser plug in works seamlessly. There is a storage limit but I haven’t reached it yet…and can pay for more. What about other browsers? What other features does it have?

Regretfully…I’ve continued my limited investment to a proper review, so this is the sum total of my experience: I’m using Zotero for now. Luckily it seems developers are at pains to make sure you can readily take your data with you, so my loyalties to any particular platform are still fragile.

UPDATE 2021: Zotero has survived and flourished as my reference manager. It has all the functionality I could wish for (mostly that it works seamlessly with Google docs), it’s intuitive, runs straight out of the box and has a fuss free user interface. There’s no ongoing fee unless you want to upload copies of the papers to cloud storage (300 mb for free) but I’m happy to store locally (although the bibliography is online and accessible from all my devices). Stoked!

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