Citing and literature management made easy with Mendeley? – Initial impressions

I’ve written a fair deal of academic and other texts this far with manual citations, including my dissertation, and many of them with a fair amount of literature. While it is clearly doable, you end up writing and copy pasting many references over again and especially if you do substantial rewrites keeping the citations and references gets out of hand. Well, you’ve probably all been there, so you know.

Enter reference management system: There’s a wealth of them around. EndNote is probably a sort of industry standard among ‘serious’ researchers, there’s MS word reference management for those who don’t like to install extra software, there’s RefWorks, which seems to be favored by libraries, and there’s BiBTex for those of you who like to work on the text without the distraction of the layout.

And then there’s Mendeley, which integrates all kinds of stuff. There’s first of all the main site, which promises to be a social networking site where you can store and share your publications with your collaborators etc. Then there’s the Mendeley Desktop Client, which is your link to the cloud storage, a pdf reader and document manager. And then there are the handy little helpers, Mendeley Cite-o-Matic plugin for MS Word, and the Save-to-Mendeley plugin for browsers. I arrived to Mendeley by happenstance and web search, although it seems that a number of my present colleagues use it as well.

Screenshot from Mendeley Desktop: Library tree and filters on the left, list of the documents in the center and publication details on the right.

Screenshot from Mendeley Desktop: Library tree and filters on the left, list of the documents in the center and publication details on the right.

Now I’m a new user, and never having used the competive software I can’t make a valid detailed comparison. However, I can tell that despite some small challenges in starting I’m starting to like the combo. I became actually sold when I got this paper draft back from a colleague working with Mendeley and as I edited one of my own references, the Cite-o-Matic popped up saying it recognized a number of unknown references and offered to refresh my citation database. I answered yes, and now I have all the citations stored as well for future reference. I’m assuming that Mendeley uses one huge database that enables sharing citations, as opposed to EndNote which uses a local database. that means you can also search missing metadata inside Mendeley when importing a pdf of the spider can’t recognize the tags from the file. That’s the way it was supposed to go all along.

As for the desktop, I’m also starting to also like the fact that you can open and annotate documents inside the client from your local and cloud database. Also your personal pdfs are stored in the cloud, which regrettably but understandably you can’t really share. We always have JSTOR, but I can imagine this would be a heaven for finding that obscure paper, say, Herbert Simon wrote 50 years ago, and which you can’t get because the database subscriptions cover 1970s.

About the problems with starting up. I made the mistake of simply pointing Mendeley to my local cache of papers that I have cited and letting it loose to import them. Because of the colorful quality of the files, including papers from different journals over several decades, some of them machine readable and some not, it didn’t work out so great. Well of course it took long and crashed the Mendeley app a couple of times, not to mention that there was a whole bunch of duplicates, papers that are missing all metadata etc.

So, I started again with a clean slate, which thankfully was easy as you can purge the database and start over from the app menu. The second time around I was wiser and started working on a new paper I’m writing and basically importing the references one-by-one to the DB during the writing process, controlling for metadata quality individually. That was cumbersome, but not more than citing manually, and now I have nice seed database going on. What is more, the web importer works a treat and can get the metadata right most of the time from major publishers’ databases. Just don’t try to upload a thousand miscellaneous pdfs all in one go and expect to go citing just like that.

In use  the Mendeley Cite-o-Matic plugin seems to work reliably, and you can easily add and modify citations and formulate a reference list. As you write, the web importer and desktop work nicely to your favor; you can read and write, and when you need to cite, you can either search through the Cite-o-Matic, through the desktop, or import a paper from the web and cite it. This far its worked quite reliably, but when you use the web import, you are best off searching the paper through desktop to make sure the metadata is correct and that the cloud has been synchronized locally, otherwise you can get a misfire.

Mendeley Cite-o-Matic plugin in MS Word 2010: Citation details open

Mendeley Cite-o-Matic plugin in MS Word 2010: Citation details open

As for bad experiences, my only actual concern is that I haven’t found out how to make custom styles tailored to journals’ requirements, but I’ll have to see about that. And the other gripe is that mass importing, e.g. from a Web of Knowledge search does not work that well.

About the other features, like networking and many of the desktop client’s features, I haven’t tried yet, but I don’t mind as long as the core functionally works reliably, which it does. I may or may not delve deeper into those aspects of the experience later. So, my initial impressions are favorable. To summarize, here are some pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Effortless collaboration with other Menedely users
  • Document management features,
  • Pretty robust pdf reader built in (allowed me to annotate and copy from a secured pdf)
  • Possibility to access your papers and citation from other workstations if the need be.

Cons:

  • Haven’t tried custom citation styles yet, but I don’t see a tailored publisher/journal library
  • Importing a cache of existing papers was not a savory experience
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