Using Bibliographic Software: Zotero or Mendeley?

Managing your bibliography is one of the most essential skills you can develop as an academic. For some, the system will be a matter of organised chaos; a personalised mess of paper, online files, post-it notes which makes sense to you and only you. And that’s fine. In the end, no one else needs to understand your system for organising your personal reference library. For others, there will be a complex system of neatly ordered cards or word-processed documents. And for others, like me, there will be bibliographic software. Once I started using Zotero, I have never looked back… and obviously I would encourage you all to do the same. But, in the end, it is about what works for you, and I hope that you will find this post informative if nothing else.

This piece was written by Christina Costa and posted initially on the University of Salford’s Postgraduate Studies Team Blog. It has been reposted with permission.

Zotero or mendeley…

Or both?

When it comes to organise your references it is important to find a strategy from the very beginning. I have learnt this from experience, and mistakes, as I spent ages trying to sort it out just weeks before I finished my MPhill. A bit of a nightmare, I must say!

So when I started the PhD I decided to be a bit more organised. At first, I started with a word document. I kept and updated all the references I was using in this document, but I soon dropped it! It almost reminded me of those perfumed journals I had during my teen years. I always started them with a lot of motivation and conviction, but sooner after I dropped them. It never became part of my routine. The writing became more fluid after I moved to the online medium and started to blog. Since I started using an online bibliographic system, I have also been able to organise my references on a more constant basis.

I know that a lot of people use EndNote. Here at the University this is also the official package and training about it is offered. [EDIT: This seems to be the case at most universities… and remember, there is generally training available in a whole host of skills to make your study life easier]

But there are also other alternatives out there that you might consider. They are particularly important because of the network that supports them.

I, for instance, use two of these systems: Mendeley and Zotero.

They enable you to organise your references in folders. In many cases the data can be extracted automatically, and a bibliography created using your home computer can be accessed through your work computer on or via the browser. Additionally, it also helps you connect to other people working on similar topics. These are becoming quite powerful systems.

From different conversations I have add with people on twitter and in other spaces, [Mendeley] seems to me by far the favourite one.  However, I would not discard Zotero. In fact, I must say I am a big fan of Zotero because of its automatic bibliographic data extraction from googlebooks, amazon, and journal sites. It just makes my life so much easier. I do no longer need to input the data manually!

Although Mendeley has now developed a similar solution to extract bibliographic data from the web, I think it is still far from achieving Zotero’s quality.  However, I do recognise Zotero’s vulnerability. It is in its collective intelligence. The group function in Zotero has not taken off the same way it has in Mendeley. Mendeley’s community is huge. The number of contributions to a collective pool of knowledge is also rather impressive. This is the main reason I keep using it, because you can get really good tips about published research in your field as well as connecting to other researchers.

So here is my strategy:

I use Zotero to create my reference lists. I also have a Mendeley account so I can share references and participate in thematic groups. Although Zotero also has a group feature, the topics I deal with are more developed in Mendeley. The collective intelligence in there is way more powerful in there. You’ve got to be where your community is if you want to keep learning with them, right?

It would be great if you could share your own views,  experiences and tricks about keeping your reference database updated.

Further Information:

Bibliographic Tools (how to)

Zotero Guide and tips

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Joeran says:

    I am one of the founders of Docear, which is a new software for organizing, creating, and discovering academic literature. 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 😉

    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 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).


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