A few days ago I sat down to start planning out my teaching sessions and started considering how I would recommend to our students they manage their information - not just by noting down the references of useful sources they find, but practical ways of saving and storing documents in a way that will enable the to find them again. I was reminded of this blog post by Patrick Dunleavy I read last week: 'I was an EndNote refusenik, but now I’m a Mendeley convert' and I decided it was about time I started exploring some online tools.
So, a few weeks ago when I was starting to think atbou Thing 15 I downloaded Zotero Standalone. and then forgot about it. I am not a firefox user, having been converted to Chrome a while back and discovering that using any other browser now seems just very clunky. Nevertheless, I thought I'd give Zotero a go, and see how far I got. Not very far is the answer. Unfortunately while on the university campus I am restricted as to the things I can download, and apparently add-ons into my browser aren't allowed, so I failed in my attempt to download the Zotero Connector. I began to feel the stirrings of frustration. Next I tried to import a document, which didn't work, and directed me to a singularly unhelpful help page. I started to play around with trying to manage pdfs and bibliographies and found myself very confused. At this point I gave up. Sorry Zotero.
I decided to turn to Mendeley and play with a different tool. Downloading Mendeley desktop was straightforward (as was downloading Zotero Standalone, to be fair). But the Mendeley interface seemed more intuitive, and the help far more abundant. It took me no time at all to find the 'watch folders' function, and suddenly all of the pdfs I'd named in a cryptic an inconsistent manner over the last 3 years, and then carefully stored in a selection of random folders, magically appeared in Mendeley - the majority of which with the correct metadata and all with the pdf attached. I was impressed. I then signed-in to Web Mendeley and the sync function meant the records for all my documents were there instantaneously Impressed again.
It was about now I wanted to download the Web importer for my browser - but I knew I'd run into the same problems downloading it as I had before, so I went home to try this. Having felt a little guilty about being unfair to Zotero, I also downloaded the Zotero Connector to compare. I think the Zotero Connector works better - it'll pick up all of the records on a webpage and import them into Zotero Standalone very quickly. Mendeley Web Importer was more tricky, as you have to allow pop-ups for every separate site, and make sure you're logged in to Web Mendeley, You then get a list of all the records on a page, and select each one for downloading individually (although this was useful - a quick way of sifting through my results and only saving the records for the results I thought were most useful). As far as I can see I'd still need to download and save my pdfs though if I wanted them stored in Mendeley Desktop as well, so perhaps saving the pdf directly to my watched folder would be a better way of importing the information...and side-step pop-blocker issues with the Mendleey Web Importer.
By this time, as you can probably tell, I was sold on Mendeley. Installed at work and at home, with my documents quickly synced across both, and the watched folder option - yep, it's all working for me. The final thing to do was install the MS Word add-on to use Mendeley to create my citations and references in an actual document. This installs straight into the References ribbon in Word, and is straightforward to use. In fact, under the Add-ins tab, the Zotero reference management tools had appeared as well so I had a play with these. I'm not sure there's much to choose between them really. just as, if you have access to Endnote or Refworks, you'd be using those as well in much the same way. And I've never really used this sort of tool in my own work, as I find tinkering with the style to make sure it meets my needs time-consuming and frustrating. So I gave up at this point - these are my own prejudices effecting my judgement.
I suspect, for anyone needing to use a bibliographic reference tool, using either Zotero or Mendeley would be extremely helpful, and possibly more user-friendly than Endnote. Mendeley gets my vote though, just for how incredibly easy (and satisfying) it is to use. And I haven't even started exploring the collaborative/file-sharing functionality that's made Mendeley so successful...