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May 22, 2009 / conceptbin

Research Tools

It’s the time of year when dissertation students start to think about what to do over the summer, and we scholars start digging out all the books and articles we didn’t get around to reading over the winter. Having just read Tara Brabazon’s Times Higher blog post on how to have passion for one’s research area while focusing on a topic and keeping all the notes and references in good order, I’ve been thinking about how I organize my stuff on- and offline.

I’m probably not alone or particularly geeky in that I work across three computers with different operating systems. Any software/service I use has to be on friendly terms with WinXP, MacOS and Ubuntu, preferably synchronized seamlessly across the intertubes. Now that it’s running Ubuntu, I seem to have my little netbook with me all the time, so this sync-business has become absolutely essential for keeping track of meeting notes, ideas, funding bids and all the bits and pieces of academic life.

Here’s the problem: Keeping track of sources, organizing the reading notes and making links between all the little things I come across online, in journals, in books, and in audiovisual media – I’ve never achieved that memorious oneness with my archive that I always imagined scholars to possess. But there are some tools…

Del.icio.us is great for materials that live online – it does bookmarks and does them well. However, it’s not ideal for group projects where you might want to share bookmarks within your team but not with the world. Right now I don’t see that as much of a problem, given that I don’t have many secret research projects on my plate. It’s my main bookmarking service, and the Delicious Add-on for Firefox gets a lot of exercise on all my computers.

Dropbox has revolutionized my file management for my own projects and collaborations. A lightweight application that integrates equally well with Finder on the Mac, Windows Explorer and GNOME on my Ubuntu machine, it has made teamwork so much easier by eliminating the constant emailing of files back and forth, with the attendant wrong-version-hell that inevitably follows.

Zotero is fast becoming my favourite management tool for articles, books and online sources. It’s a Firefox add-on that syncs references and notes across computers, and allows for tagging and organizing the reference collection in multiple ways. I’m experimenting with it right now on a conference paper I’m preparing, and so far this application seems very impressive. For one thing, it’s enabled me to rediscover a stack of journal articles on PDF I’d saved on one of my machines, and the drag-drop export into bibliographies on GoogleDocs has made it a breeze to keep track of sources while writing. The new 2.0 version just came out, and I haven’t gotten my head around all the features (e.g., group libraries), but as a basic user I’m very happy with Zotero.

The Zotero interface is a breeze to learn and use. It’s very different from EndNote Web, which only plays with Windows and Mac, and requires the purchase of proprietary software. We’ll see what happens with Zotero when I start using the OpenOffice.org and Word plug-ins for longer, more complicated writing projects. For more techie details, check out Dan Cohen’s overview of Zotero 2.0.

Mendeley, a new service that uses a desktop application instead of a Firefox add-on, seems to have a lot of potential. The problem for me is that it works much like Zotero, except the desktop app doesn’t quite agree with my netbook, so I haven’t felt compelled to spend time figuring out how it works while Zotero runs smoothly on all my machines. I’m curious to see how it plays out there among fellow scholars, because it looks very useful.

The main thing with these applications and services is that before you start using them extensively, spending time building your database, is to make sure at the outset that they offer export functionality. As with all cloud-computing applications you’ll want to have an exit strategy.

2 Comments

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  1. Ricardo Vidal / May 23 2009 12:05 am

    Thanks for including Mendeley among your research tools of choice. However, I’m sad to read that you had issues using it on your netbook. Was it the Ubuntu client? Which version did you try? We’ve been releasing updates on a rather regular basis. I’d be more than pleased to help you sort out any of the issues that didn’t allow you to fully enjoy Mendeley.
    We are very interested in receiving user feedback. Our development roadmap decisions take into account what the research community has to say, so feedback is very much appreciated (http://feedback.mendeley.com)

    Also, I’d like to let you (and your readers/students) know that our next versions (maybe even the very next!) will allow you to synchronize with Zotero!

    I actually use all of the above research tools you mentioned and then some. I would also recommend Evernote. It’s great to keep snippets of text, images and whatnot.

  2. gauti / May 24 2009 1:58 pm

    Ricardo, thanks for the comment. The Mendeley client works fine with Ubuntu on my machine. The problem is that I usually have Firefox and OpenOffice running at the same time, and an Atom processor with 512mb memory is just too wimpy to run the desktop client efficiently alongside them. It’s my hardware and not your application that is the problem here. It works great on my Mac, however, so I’ll be very happy when the Zotero-sync feature becomes available.

    As for Evernote, I’ve used it for the past year on the Windows machine and the Mac. It’s a great application, but it doesn’t run on Ubuntu. Therefore, I’m using it less and less for research because I usually take the lightweight netbook to the library instead of lugging the Mac.

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