Thursday, 15 September 2011

Thing 14: Giving me ex-citations

When I did my library masters dissertation all those *smothering cough* years ago, I handwrote all of my references and citations as I came across them on index cards, which I filed in a little plastic box. I then used the information recorded on these to type my bibliography out manually. I know some would consider this activity to be a monumental bum-ache, but I actually find referencing and citing quite an absorbing and satisfying task. Also, top dissertation-writing tip: faffing around with your bibliography is an excellent displacement activity for those times when you should actually be writing your main chapters but don't want to/can't bear to. 

Now there are software packages and applications that can be used to automatically generate and manipulate your citations - and in doing so probably offer new and high tech ways to procrastinate. At my institution we use EndNote; although I have received basic instruction in this, my job doesn't involve helping library users with it, nor do I have cause to use it regularly myself, so my knowledge of it is sketchy to say the least. Might as well have a look at some other options then...


I have not used Zotero before, so for the purposes of this Thing I registered an account, installed the Firefox add-on, and set about gathering some citations from various sources. The subsequent wranglings with Zotero left me feeling confused and slightly inadequate. Everywhere I turn, on cpd23 participants' blogs and on the web generally, people seem to be raving about how brilliant and easy to use it is. This was not my experience, and now I'm not sure if the problem lies with me or with Zotero.

Here are a few of the things that irked me:
  • I wasn't able to extract bibliographic details from a record from my own library's catalogue - attempting to do so just gave me a pop-up box with an error message
  • I had similar problems trying to save details from a Web of Knowledge record
  • I received the same error message when trying to save details from a Scopus record, but then when my Zotero account next synced the reference had been added to my library - oh-kaaaay...
  • However, the data taken from the Scopus record did not include the article's DOI - so not ideal, really

To be fair to Zotero, I did manage to extract data from other sources, including Copac and online journal pages, although the punctuation in the resulting citations was slightly iffy and would need to be tidied up. And I was impressed with the way it grabs useful, usable metadata from web pages. And manually adding citations was reasonably easy. And, with a modicum of head-scratching, I managed to create a bibliography from citations in my library (although, again, I needed to edit some of the references to improve their accuracy and consistency). And I'm basing these impressions off about an hour's use and I'm sure I could get Zotero to work effectively for me if I play around with it a bit more. But it was kind of a bruising first encounter, one that replaced the soothing satisfaction of carefully crafting and sorting my own citations with eye-rolling frustration, and it made me not really want to explore it any further.

In spite of my extended moaning, I did manage to compile the beginnings of a library of references using Zotero


I first heard about Mendeley last year when there was a presentation about it at a Repositories Support Project event. Maybe I was being a bit dim (it was the first session immediately after lunch), or maybe the presentation wasn't very clear, but I came away with the impression that it's a tool to extract and share full text files from users' computers. Consequently, my inner copyright guru was screeching "Er, hello? Is that even legal?". Having investigated a bit further I now realise that Mendeley principally extracts bibliographic data rather than the complete files themselves. (However, authors can share their PDFs within small private groups - um, depending on which versions of their articles people are sharing and the contracts they've signed with the publishers, I'm still not sure that's entirely legal, but whatevs.) Anyway, now my inner cataloguing guru is screeching "Er, hello? Authority control anyone?"

In fact, checking out some of the online user reviews of Mendeley reveals that, as with Zotero, you do often have to manually tidy up the citation data that's been extracted, but I can totally dig that for many (non-weird) people this is much less of a pain than having to create all of your citations from scratch.

However, I think where Mendeley does have some advantages is in the social network it builds around users' profiles: user can join or follow public groups based around their interests, and in smaller private groups they can share and annotate documents together. In this sense, Mendeley might be classed as a collaborative tool along with those discussed in Thing 13 as much as a reference management tool.

I'm also intrigued by the function in Mendeley that, for each article or citation, recommends "related" items, chiefly because I would like to see if it's more useful than similar recommendation features such as those offered by and Amazon (newsflash Amazon: the reason I viewed the Box Canvas Print of Paul Ross is because the customer reviews make it the funniest page in the entire history of the internet; it does not necessarily follow from this that I would be interested in purchasing the Paul Ross photo mug or the Paul Ross jigsaw puzzle. But thanks for the suggestions anyway).


Despite, or perhaps because of, its somewhat ridiculous name (did they nick the idea from Spudulike?), I really did like CiteULike. I've now got the "Post to CiteULike" widget installed on my toolbar and have picked up a few citations, which went a lot more smoothly than with Zotero [insert contemptuous snort here]. A few of the features that I liked about this application:
  • You can see which other CiteULike users have the same references as you, and with one click you can go and have a good nose around in their library
  • I particularly loved that you can rate each item in your library according to the likelihood that you will use or look at it (including the blunt but probably accurate assessment "I don't really want to read it")
  • There's a handy little button that lets you write a blog about individual items in your library. I'll probably never use that, but it's a nice feature anyway

Out of the three tools investigated here, CiteULike is probably the most light on features, the least flexible and the least snazzy. But perversely it was the one that I found most charming and the one that I would be most likely to keep using.

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