How research has changed: citation managers

The last in my current series on ‘how research has changed’ is that I want to mention citation managers.

This is not intended to be a guide to how to use them – I haven’t had the time or focus to work that up yet! Instead, consider this a starting point for learning more about them.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

What’s a citation manger?

It’s a piece of software that helps you keep track of what you’ve found and where you’ve found it.

Specifically, they allow you to enter articles, books, and in some cases webpages into the manager, format the metadata, and do things with it. Some of them allow you to save PDFs in the software, but even if the manager you choose doesn’t do that, it will help you keep track of what you have.

Metadata?

Metadata is the term for information about content – for a book, the metadata includes things like the author, title, or publisher.

A better explanation might be this one from Scientific American’s blog, about 5 years ago, where Bonnie Swager explained metadata using Santa Claus’s naughty and nice lists.

(Whatever you think of this particular story and mythology, it’s a much more fun example than a lot of the ones out there, and she does a great job explaining different kinds of metadata with it.)

This information helps you sort and filter information. Maybe you want all the things by a specific author, or all the things written around a particular time. Or maybe you half remember the title of something, but know you read it and put it in your system at a particular point – if your metadata includes the date an entry

If you want a more detailed explanation of metadata, including a number of standards sets for managing it, there’s a PDF that Bonnie links to at the end of her article that is a dead link there, but can be found on the National Information Standards Organization website: Understanding Metadata

What are the options for citation managers?

There are several different widely used citation managers out there. Some of them cost money. If you’re a student at university or work for one, you may have access to an institutional subscription, but if you aren’t, there are a couple of free options (or free + a fee for additional storage space).

The big names are RefWorks (usually needs a university subscription), EndNote (in a couple of versions), Mendeley, and Zotero. The University of Minnesota has a handy chart comparing the last three in detail (they discontinued their RefWorks subscription for cost reasons).

If you want a really detailed comparison, here’s another chart (which has multiple pages) from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

All of them should have methods for exporting and importing data (important for academics, since different institutions have often picked one or two to focus on or provide rather than others, and people do move institutions.)

I’ve tended to gravitate toward Zotero, for the combination of cost and the fact it works best with online sources, but I’m still working out my best workflow for managing materials. There’s a web extension for Chrome that allows you to connect between the desktop app and the browser.

Fee for space: One place these managers charge fees is to store materials. Just storing information about an item is a small amount of plain text (which takes a tiny amount of space on modern computers). If you want to store full PDFs in your manager tool, however, you may need more space.

If that’s a problem, you can always choose to save your files somewhere (cloud service, your computer, a backup drive, whatever makes sense. Ideally more than one of those as a precaution!)

What can you do with one?

Even if all you do is make a list of resources in there, that’s probably a big win. You can tag or organise your entries in all sorts of different ways, marking things you’ve read and things you want to read, different topics, and much more.

However, citation managers become invaluable if you’re doing any kind of formal writing where you might need to produce reference lists, bibliographies, end notes, or footnotes. They can take all that metadata and do most of the work of putting it in the correct format.

(You may need to do some review and minor editing: computers are great at this kind of task, but sometimes need help with which words are capitalised or unusual entries.)

If you’re serious about research, or you’re managing a lot of complex files, you owe it to yourself to check out citation managers and other research tools. They’re a lot less awkward and clunky to use than they were just a few years ago, and they can really make your life much easier if you spend a little time keeping on top of them.

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